"The Corporation" is not a broadside against capitalism but rather a critique of corporate fundamentalism.

csjlong's picture

"The Corporation," the ambitious 2004 documentary directed by Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott, begins with a fascinating premise. Since the law defines a corporation as an actual "person" with an existence independent of its partners and shareholders, exactly what kind of person is the corporation? What kind of personality traits does it display? The filmmakers proceed through a World Health Checklist to find out. A callous unconcern for the feelings of others? Check. A reckless disregard for the safety of others? Check. Deceitfulness: repeated lying and conning others for profit? Check.

The diagnosis? The corporation is a psychopath.

The corporation is a person in the eyes of the law, but it is also a person that is legally mandated to pursue one goal and only one goal: the generation of profit. It's not a matter of good and evil, greed or malice; to act in any manner that does not maximize profit would simply be illegal. The corporation cannot help itself; it is designed by a series of legal precedents to act in this manner. And the world has to deal with the repercussions.

Some viewers may find the psychopath metaphor inflammatory, but the film marshals an extraordinary amount of evidence in support of its central argument. Indeed, "The Corporation" packs more information into its 145-minute running time than any documentary I have seen in recent years.

The case histories are so numerous I can barely even scratch the surface in this review. One of the most memorable is Monsanto's use of Bovine Growth Hormone, a chemical designed to stimulate cows to produce up to thirty percent more milk. Let's set aside the fact that we already have so much milk production capacity in America that the government pays farmers not to produce it, and just focus on the pros and cons of the product. The cons? The cows often get severe infections resulting in a grotesque swelling of the udders, requiring farmers to pump antibiotics into the herd. In addition, when the infected cows are milked, the weeping pus from their infections winds up in the milk. The pros? A ready-made ad slogan for Monsanto: Pus-filled, antibiotic-laced milk, it does a body good!

"The Corporation" is not a broadside against capitalism but rather a critique of corporate fundamentalism, a heady drink that's one-part porcine "enlightened self-interest" and two parts mystical belief in the wisdom and goodness of the "invisible hand" of something known as a "free market." Shake vigorously and allow to "trickle down" before serving.

The film suggests, quite reasonably, that there are certain problems inherent in a system which permits corporations to grow so large and unregulated that they become de facto multinational governments unto themselves. The most shocking story in the film is so dystopian it seems to be plucked straight from the mind of George Orwell. The Bechtel Corporation of San Francisco purchased the private rights to the entire water supply of Cochabamba, Bolivia. Not just the infrastructure of the public water works, mind you, but the water itself, including the water that falls from the sky. Amazingly, it was actually illegal for citizens even to collect rainwater. Government troops actively enforced Bechtel's privatization of the water supply by force. Eventually, the populace rose up in mass protest, sending the government into hiding. Six dead and a few hundred injured later, the citizens once again had secured the right to water but at a staggering cost.

Many left-leaning documentaries only preach to the choir, but "The Corporation" seeks the largest audience possible. The film features an extraordinary number of interviews, about four dozen subjects in all, and though the usual left-wing icons like Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein and Michael Moore turn up, we also hear from several CEOs including Sir Mark Moody-Stuart, CEO of Shell Oil. Even free market guru Milton Friedman makes several appearances. The desire for a safer world, a sustainable environment and healthy children crosses party lines, and "The Corporation" speaks to the shared concerns of a society threatened by the rapidly growing power of this psychotic legal institution. This explains why the documentary received positive reviews in many conservative venues, including the Wall Street Journal.

At the heart of the film is the plea to reconsider the way in which we calculate wealth. If net profits rise while forests are depleted, streams are polluted, and a growing cancer epidemic touches the lives of nearly every American, has the wealth of the nation truly increased? The smart-aleck answer, of course, is "Yep" or maybe "Yep, you bleeding-heart liberal," but the film asks us at least to consider a better way. Flesh and blood people constantly make choices that enrich their lives beyond mere capital gain; why not create an environment where these strange corporate "people" can make the same choices?

"The Corporation" throws an amazing amount of information at the viewer, supported by a dazzling array of rapid-fire visuals and multi-media presentations. Watching this film can be an overwhelming experience, but it is also one you're unlikely to forget any time soon. The phrase "must-see" gets overused by critics though I'm fairly sure I've yet to use it in any of my reviews. Until now. "The Corporation" is a must-see for anyone who wants to know more about the dominant institution of our era, the multi-national corporation. And that should mean everybody.


This is an anamorphic widescreen transfer, presented in a 16:9 aspect ratio and enhanced for widescreen television. The film delivers a constant stream of facts and figures, but that doesn't mean the visuals are cut and dried. The film is slick and ultra-modern, and the picture quality on this transfer is quite clear and the colors are sharp. Even the stock footage looks good.


The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Surround. The audio design is fairly complex, with music, effects, and voice-over mixed together in many scenes. In general, the audio transfer is very good. However, there are a few moments when the female voice-over is difficult to hear because of the music or effects, but only a few.

As I mentioned in the review, the filmmakers wish to reach as broad an audience as possible and the audio options reflect that desire. The DVD is also offered in "English Descriptive Sound," an option which includes a deep male voice describing each scene (e.g. "Looking down an office corridor") for visually impaired audience members. The DVD also features English, Spanish, and French subtitles to support the audio.


"The Corporation" is a two-disc package.

Disc One includes the anamorphic transfer of the film along with two commentary tracks, one by Achbar and Abbott, the other by Joel Bakan, author of the book which inspired the documentary. The disc also includes a Q&A session with the filmmakers (27 min.), Deleted Scenes (16 min.) and a filmed Air America radio interview with Joel Bakan conducted by Janeane Garofolo (40 min.). Disc One also offers a short presentation of the Grassroot Marketing (7 min.) of the film and two Theatrical Trailers.

If that sounds like a lot, it's only the appetizer to the main course served on Disc Two. More than five hours of extra interviews are offered here. The sheer amount of information is so overwhelming that the DVD producers have permitted viewers to access it in two ways, either by interviewee (you can choose from two screens comprising forty different speakers!) or by topic. The disc also includes listings of additional film and web resources and updates on some of the interview subjects.

Needless to say, I haven't had time to sort through all this material yet, but what I've watched so far is impressive. The extras more than live up to the high standard set by the film itself.

Closing Thoughts:

The worm has turned. Michael Moore is interviewed several times in the film and even gets the last word, yet the back of the DVD package now boasts a quote from Entertainment Weekly stating, "Better manners and a longer fuse than Fahrenheit 9/11!" Oh well, just wait another year, and everyone will be eager to pal up with big Mikey once again. It does highlight what a polarizing figure he has become, though. The very inclusion of Moore in a movie guarantees millions of dittoheads will summarily dismiss it as "liberal propaganda." But, of course, we know that our readers are far more sophisticated than that. "The Corporation" will leave you with enough material to fuel dinner conversations for weeks on end. Don't miss it.


Film Value