The title of this ambitious documentary would make John Grisham smile, but The Corporation is no thriller. Alternately puckish and sententious, this overlong lecture on the pros and mostly cons of globalism posits a novel critique of capitalism. Since a corporation is considered to be a person under law, it is therefore fair game for psychoanalysis. And what does a psychoanalytic profile of an archetypal corporation reveal? According to the filmmakers, the dominant institution of our time is a certifiable psychopath.
Author Joel Bakan, law professor at the University of British Columbia, spent half a decade with directors Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott making the film, which features interviews with people's historian Howard Zinn, Cannes-do Palme d'Or-winner Michael Moore, free-market proponent Michael Walker and various CEOs. This is a documentary with a point of view, however. The filmmakers admit corporations create great wealth, but they argue that these amoral, autonomous companies do far greater harm than good, exploiting the poor, eroding the environment, usurping human rights…all the while flaunting national and international laws, ethical restraints and any other barriers that might compromise the bottom line.
Luckily for us, Bakan, Achbar and Abbott have a sense of humor, which enlivens the proceedings for the first 90 minutes. No matter what you may think of their premise, it's entertaining to watch them compare corporate behavior with the Personality Diagnostic Checklist, which considers the incapacity to maintain enduring relationships (layoffs, union busting), reckless disregard for the safety of others (pollution, toxic waste) and other dubious traits indicative of a disturbed individual. The filmmakers employed some first-rate researchers to dig up campy footage to accompany their narrative, allowing them to illustrate discussions of economic concepts with pie-in-the-face slapstick and '50s irony.
Among the talking heads, Ray Anderson, CEO of Interface, the world's largest commercial carpet manufacturer, emerges as the most appealing. With his graceful Southern manners, Anderson not only appears refreshingly sincere, but he makes a strong case for reasonable but responsible corporate stewardship. MIT activist Noam Chomsky, on the other hand, seems the very embodiment of liberal earnestness, scolding corporations for turning Americans (and everyone else, presumably) into "completely mindless consumers" programmed to desire "the insignificant things of life, like fashionable clothing." Chomsky may be one of our leading social critics (he was the subject of Manufacturing Consent, an earlier documentary co-directed by Achbar), but he sure takes the fun out of things.
That's the trouble with The Corporation. Bakan, Achbar and Abbott would have had a first-rate film had they stuck with their conceit--corporations as inmates running the asylum--but they dilute their case in an attempt to make it irrefutable. And so the audience must endure examples of corporate malfeasance in the form of censorship (Fox News, naturally), privatization (of water in a small city in Bolivia) and history (corporate collusion with the Nazis). Even the narration, seductively spoken by Mikela J. Mikael, grows tiresome somewhere around the two-hour mark. "Transnational corporations have a long and dark history of condoning tyrannical government," she purrs. "Is it narcissism that compels them to seek their reflection in the regimented structure of fascist regimes?"
The points reiterated (and re-reiterated) in The Corporation will be familiar to subscribers of the left-leaning Nation magazine, who will adore this documentary. But one suspects this sermon will be preached mostly to the choir.