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The Corporation

I went to see The Corporation on Tuesday. It’s a bit like Fox News. On the surface it’s interesting and it professes to tell an important story. In reality, it’s just a thin veneer designed to attract a certain type of audience and win a certain type of acclaim.

The film’s point is supposed to be that the modern corporation is pathological. It acts callously. It has no feelings. It has no ethics. However, this film has no strong argument to support this case.

Granted, it has a bunch of celebrity interviewees. People like Milton Friedman, the inventor of monetarism and traffic-charging, and Noam Chomsky, a careful, deep-thinking radical. It also features interesting interview footage of a guy called Ray Anderson, who is the CEO of the biggest commercial carpet-maker in the world and who is restructuring the company to minimise the environmental footprint. It has nice visuals which make its message seem stronger and more real.

Like Fox News, ‘The Corporation’ is just a sequence of soundbites which lead nebulously toward unjustified, unargued conclusions. It presents some pictures and soundbites for the viewer to draw conclusions from. There’s nothing wrong with allowing the viewer to think, but it is surely wrong to substitute that for making your argument clear and arguing from the facts.

There is a section called ‘case studies’. But actually, the filmmakers hardly studies any cases at all. The film deals with isolated aspects of a small number of cases. It casts vague aspersions on companies in general. And then it generalizes that there is something wrong with corporations in general.

The film commits a number of tabloid newpaper and shock-jock TV sins:

– It quotes people without context. I have no idea what the full discussion with Friedman was like, but given his background as the proponent of modern corporatization and privatization, I’m sure he hadn’t come into the studio to say what a bad state the corporate sector is in. It looks to me like the filmmakers just took what they wanted from the interview and made it look like he somehow agreed with their argument

– It takes advantage of people who aren’t media-savvy and manipulates them to make good footage. The managers of the Asian clothes factory are portrayed as angry and vindictive. All they did on camera was try to keep trespassers out of their factory. It may well have been the case that workers were being maltreated by these managers. But we weren’t shown much footage of that. Instead, the film makers went for the cheap shot, the easy target.

– It makes unjustified generalizations. We are told that there are a number of corpoations, that do really bad things, and their power is unchecked. We are expected to take from that that most or all corporations are doing similar things, and are similarly unmonitored. In fact this isn’t a justifiable conclusion at all. Equally, all the examples are of American companies, but we are expected to generalize to corporations everywhere.

– It draws false analogies. It compares a company, which is a ‘legal person’ to a natural person with a personality disorder. The comparison is ridiculous. A corporation is manifestly not anything like a person, except in a few, limited, legal respects.

– It pretends to show both sides of the story, but in fact only pays lip-service to the other side of the discussion. It doesn’t look at all the good things that companies have done (even though Michael Moore points out that companies do many good things). It doesn’t compare our capitalist system with other systems that have been tried and which have been equally dehumanizing and environmentally destructive.

– It uses pictures as substitutes for facts. It picks out bits of archive tape and strings them together to illustrate what it is saying.

– It expects us to believe things just because someone important or some reputable source says it.

– It cherry-picks the facts, and doesn’t make any effort to show whether the illustrative examples are really typical.

– It presents opinions, sensationalism and pamphleteering as objective documentary-making.

Don’t get me wrong. There are serious problems with corporate life and in particular with corporate America. In fact the problem is deeper than what the filmmakers assert – it is a problem with all collective enterprises and maybe with human nature itself. The problem is that the film doesn’t explain the problems. If you want to find out how corporate America works and malfunctions, spend the two hours reading the Wall Street Journal or a book by Rollo May. You’ll learn a lot more.

The film is just entertainment dressed up as documentary. It’s a bit of fun, meant to titillate a particular market segment. It has no more credibility as a factual documentary than the Da Vinci Code has as a historical novel. If that’s what you want, fine. Go along and enjoy it.

Of course, lots of other people think it’s a great movie, for example, the BBC has a section singing its praises. Killler Movie Reviews says its “Imaginative graphics share screen time with an unusually robust set of talking heads that includes filmmaker/gadfly Michael Moore and physicist/environmentalist Vandana Shiva, and linguist/media anarchist Noam Chomskey (sic), and with clips from industrial films from both vintage and modern, used in ironic ways that are both pithy and pointed”. They obviously liked all the things I was suspicious of. Wired thought it was ‘straightforward’ and ‘well-researched’ which makes me think that I shouldn’t pay much attention to anything you read in that magazine. That Girl was impressed too.

I suppose this film does have some good points. I’ve been engaged with corporate goings-on for a long time, and I know a bit about how it works, good and bad. Many people haven’t had the opportunity to get that insight, and they get something out of it.

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  1. I am just reviewing what I saw, and what I saw was well-cinematographed but very weak.

    Fortunately I don’t have to answer for the Economist’s review.

    I didn’t see Fahrenheit 411 and I didn’t review it either. From the other Moore films I’ve seen, I’d say Moore is a different case. He’s basically playing for laughs. He is aiming at a much larger audience (democrats and soft republicans, rather than pseudo-intellectuals) He doesn’t have any pretences of making a complex argument.

    The film will be watched by the same people who buy Chomsky’s books but never actually read them. What are these people supposed to take away from the movie? It talks about a bunch of bad things that undoubtedly happened and are still happening, but it has no clear message about what should be done about them.

  2. I’d read the book that accompanies it before making any harsh judgements.


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