It will be more difficult to catch a screening of “The Corporation” than, say, “Alien vs. Predator,” but embrace the challenge if you want to see the world in which you live with a fresh set of eyes.
This Canadian documentary explores how the corporation has become the dominant institution in 21st-century society.
Filmmakers Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott teamed with lawyer Joel Bakan to create this highly engaging, 145-minute look at corporations. The film is based on Bakan’s book, The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power.
The central conceit of the documentary is that corporations tend to behave like psychopaths: disregarding others’ safety, lying for profit, failing to feel guilty, not complying with the law.
The corporation, the filmmakers say, is a paradox: It creates great wealth even as it engenders hidden harms.
They start with a historical look at corporations, noting that they were originally chartered for specific purposes, like building bridges, with the intent to disband once the public interest objective had been met.
Corporate lawyers, however, succeeded in getting corporations the legal status of persons about the time of the Fourteenth Amendment, a post-Civil War amendment that specified due process and equal protection for citizens.
The upshot was that corporations were legally recognized as “people,” but people with no moral grounding or conscience.
The film proceeds from that critical point: What has happened now that humans have conceded monolithic power to an institution with no soul, no ethic—save one, to make money.
The documentary includes interviews with about 40 people: various CEOs, business ethicists, corporate watchdogs, whistleblowers and others. Among these are MIT professor and author Noam Chomsky; author Howard Zinn; filmmaker Michael Moore; and Nobel economist Milton Friedman.
The project is not a litany of corporate malfeasance a la Enron. So much more than a hatchet job on corporations, “The Corporation” asks tough questions regarding the nature of the institution as well as the nature of those who run them.
As Chomsky says, CEOs may genuinely be the nicest people you’ll ever meet, but corporate structure dictates they put the bottom line for their stockholders first.
“People want money,” says one interviewee. “That’s the bottom line.”
The documentary does include case studies of corporate wrongdoing. It takes an illuminating and fair look at the Kathie Lee Gifford “scandal” over sweatshops used to produce her apparel line.
It also investigates the pieces of the puzzle that create the larger corporate picture. For example, one interviewee had conducted a corporate study finding that nagging (by kids on their parents) accounts for 25 percent of trips to theme parks.
The interviewee said she didn’t know if encouraging kids to nag was ethical, but helping the corporation make money was her objective.
Achbar, Abbott and Bakan also examine Chris and Luke, the first corporate-sponsored college students; Big Fat Inc., which does real-life product placement; IBM’s investment in punch-card technology that helped process concentration camp victims; and much more.
“The Corporation” is visually stimulating as well, as it uses old movies and instructional videos about marketing, corporations, businesses and making money. Seeing these cultural artifacts in this context is like unraveling a DNA strand and seeing how something came to be.
And speaking of DNA, the filmmakers devote some time to how corporations, having sliced and diced the previous frontiers of land, sea and air, are now turning to the human body itself, aiming to patent genes.
The film is rich with commentary on ideas like “externalities” and “intergenerational tyranny.” The points of view of its “stars” will always stimulate and sometimes even surprise. Particularly engaging is the story of Ray Anderson, CEO of a leading carpet manufacturer, who came to think of himself not as a captain of industry, but as a plunderer.
Anderson’s personal struggle is a microcosm of our society struggle, the filmmakers suggest. Are we short-sighted? Should the new corporate mantra be, “Do no harm?” Should we undo some of what we’ve done? Can we?
While the “bad apples” of corporate America may make for interesting snippets on the nightly news, this documentary sizes up the tree itself—roots and all.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: Not rated. Reviewer’s Note: The documentary shows a few scenes of street violence during protests.
Director: Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott
Writer: Joel Bakan
The movie’s official Web site is here.