The Company Line

A new film denouncing corporate ruthlessness could use some downsizing of its own

Near the beginning of The Corporation, a damning documentary designed to expose everything that is irresponsible, immoral, inhumane and lethal about corporations, the narrator posits the film's thesis: "We present the corporation as a paradox," she says, "an institution that creates great wealth but causes enormous and often hidden harm." In fact, this formulation is not a paradox: Creating wealth, though viewed by many as a positive thing, is not the opposite of causing harm. Furthermore, though The Corporation occasionally stops to mention that corporations can do good, the sense of balance suggested by the thesis isn't fooling anyone. This is a polemic made by people who want to see the end of corporations as we know them.

As well it should be. After scarcely more than fifteen minutes, in which the film explores the history of the corporation and how it won its status as a "legal person," the evidence has accrued in favor of change, if not extinction. And The Corporation continues -- featuring interviews with 40 activists, authors, stakeholders, CEOs, marketers and Nobel Prize winners -- for a beefy two-and-a-quarter hours beyond that. Directors Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbot are nothing if not thorough; they seek to expose every possible ramification of corporate unaccountability, every way in which corporations have harmed, and continue to harm, so much that we hold dear.

It can be a lot to take. In fact, it can be obliterating. And that's one of the reasons that The Corporation isn't as good as it might be. As a clear, exhaustive and highly intelligent discussion of one of the most pressing issues of our time, it's a success. As a work of documentary, however, it's flawed: by its failure to limit its scope (or at least pare down its material), by its strangely stylized narration, and by its lack of a story.

First, a bit about the content. Once upon a time (pre-Civil War), a corporation was a group of people chartered by the public to accomplish a specific task, usually for the public good. When the task was complete, the corporation disbanded. After the passage of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which followed the Civil War and was designed to bestow equal rights upon African Americans, corporate lawyers challenged the courts to win rights for their organizations. Their argument? That a corporation was a "legal person" and therefore deserved any rights conveyed to personhood. Inexplicably, shockingly, the Supreme Court bought it.

The problem, as Noam Chomsky points out, is that corporations are a special kind of person, a person designed to be responsible only to stockholders, a person with "no moral conscience." Michael Moore puts it even more bluntly: "They're not people. They care only about the bottom line." Indeed, it may seem absurd to grant corporations the legal rights of people without also holding them accountable to their actions, but that is how it is in the United States. In fact, the slippery legal status of corporations is exactly what allows them to pillage and pollute the earth, trample human rights, undermine democracy and lay off untold thousands of workers whenever they please, all with impunity.

One of the film's most memorable conceits is its psychological evaluation of corporations. If a corporation is a legal person, the directors posit, let's examine this person's mental health. Using diagnostic criteria from the World Health Organization and the DSM-IV, they catalog the corporation's personality characteristics: self-interested, inherently amoral, incapable of feeling guilt, unconcerned about breaching social and legal standards to get its way, etc. The diagnosis? Psychopath.

Another compelling segment involves Jane Akre and Steve Wilson, two investigative reporters at Fox News who were stymied in, and ultimately fired for, their attempt to expose the dangers of rBGH, a hormone used to increase milk production in cows. Though it had originally intended to run the story, Fox cowered when it received threatening letters from lawyers at St. Louis-based Monsanto, the chemical and bioengineering giant that manufactures rBGH and heavily promotes its use. What makes this segment so successful is, first, its major players -- Akre and Wilson are noble, articulate figures -- and, second, its plot, complete with shocking twists and turns and a climax in court.

It's too bad that The Corporation doesn't have a plot of its own, or some kind of narrative arc, to thread us through its copious content. Yes, the subject is pressing, but every subject is more interesting when portrayed through a story; viewers absorb information best when we can connect with the material. Particularly here, where there is a mother lode of data, we could use the assistance of a narrative structure. Failing that, the directors might have cut the film by a half-hour; it takes two hours to get to anything remotely resembling hope, and by then we are nearly crushed.

Finally, a lesser point. The narration, though infrequent, is oddly stylized. The eerie, fem-bot voice (of TV miniseries actress Mikela J. Mikael) invokes an echo-chamber chill; it feels technical and distant. As an audience, we could use a warmer companion, someone able to sound human and real while delivering the hard facts. Someone like -- well, like Michael Moore. Yes, Moore has his detractors, and the hype surrounding Fahrenheit 9/11 may turn still others away. But there is no denying his ability to connect with an audience. The minute Moore appears onscreen, we can't help but hope he'll stick around.

That, no doubt, is why Achbar and Abbot close the film with him, and with his hope that at least a few people who see The Corporation will get up and do something about the swath of destruction that corporations have cut through nearly everything we value. In the words of every Jewish grandmother worth her salt, from his mouth to God's ear.

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