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THE CORPORATION (not rated) (2003)

Big Pictures Media Corporation

Official Site

Directors: Jennifer Abbott, Mark Achbar

Producers: Mark Achbar, Bart Simpson

Written by: Joel Bakan

Cast: Jane Akre, Ray Anderson, Maude Barlow, Chris Barrett, Noam Chomsky, Peter Drucker, Samuel Epstein, Milton Friedman, Naomi Klein, Susan E. Linn, Luke McCabe, mikéla j. mikael (Narrator), Robert Monks, Michael Moore, Vandana Shiva, Steve Wilson


It seems we Americans are indebted to Canada for a great deal more than brilliant comedians and affordable prescription drugs, as they have given us this outstanding political documentary film, which affords us an invaluable glimpse into the nature of the business institution that now seems to define us, both as a nation and as a people. We would do well to wake up and pay attention.

This is it folks. The Corporation seizes the holy grail of political documentary filmmaking, presenting complicated ideas in such an informative, persuasive, and entertaining way as to change opinions and motivate people to go out and make a difference. It may come as no great surprise that this film is an indictment rather than a celebration of its titular subject, but the comprehensive understanding that it achieves in presenting its argument is nothing less than extraordinary.

In actual research, The Corporation is exhaustive. It covers the origins and historical development of the corporation as business institution in as painless a way as possible. It is not boring, after all, because this is not a history with which we are at all familiar. For instance, it turns out that the corporation as a business entity is afforded the same rights as an individual, so the film does a pathological analysis of the corporation as if it were an actual individual, with predictable but compelling results.

The Corporation also provides interviews with all manner of people intimate with corporate machinations, from virtually every conceivable point of view. The film recognizes the amazing accomplishments of corporations and marvels at the efficiency. Then there are the expected detailed case histories of corporate misadventures, being familiar to all of us, but there are also some examples that will probably be horrifyingly new. Even where we are most familiar and dismissive of corporate malfeasance, the film establishes a contextual understanding that should shock you out of complacence.

The Corporation does not achieve this through the predictable fear-mongering and sermonizing that you might expect, but through long and considered arguments that it hammers meticulously and relentlessly. That may make the film sound worse than a term paper or a political convention, but don’t let that scare you; it really is remarkably entertaining. The better comparison would be to a parody of a corporate training film, which the film structurally mocks but uses to good organizational advantage. Illustrative graphics and actual excerpts from various old “educational” films provide welcome relief and a few laughs. But even here, the message of the humor always seems to add a new dimension to the topic at that moment. Sometimes the implications of these asides are so deeply meaningful that you scarcely know which message to ponder.

In my opinion, the editing and direction of this film are done with a skill that invites comparison to the musical masters of the symphonic form, a very useful analogy. Like most symphonies, this film is serious stuff. Each theme is an important political thought, and the implications of that thought are expressed, supported, and developed through a variety of means (film clips, anecdotal interviews, talking heads expressing philosophical opinions, corporate documentation of its own malfeasance), almost like hearing it played by different instruments. There is even the counter-point of dissenting opinions, which do not confuse the issue at hand, but make it even more interesting and complex. Rather than trying to reduce your thoughts to the conclusion of an endlessly repeated pop chorus, this film encourages you to think about many things at once, or you get to choose. This film sweeps over you, rather than slapping you around. In these days of swift-boat politics, this deep-water approach is very refreshing. Even the actual music in the film is relatively subtle and rarely distracting.

I’ll admit that not everyone can sit through a symphony, and at a running time of 145 minutes, this film makes demands on the viewer, but you simply have to regard the enormity of their task. How can you possibly hope to distract a nation, or the parts of the world, that has blissfully suckled at the teat of unbridled capitalism? As it turns out, the milk that sustains us might be tainted with pus, literally. I’ll indulge them a little excess.

One last point: Remember the question that was circulating after 9/11? “Why do they hate us?” The answer is not as simple as “They are just jealous of all our freedom,” and this film will give you a far more intelligent and even-handed explanation than we would ever have reason to expect. Even if you worship at the corporate church, I don’t feel that I should have to argue as to why this is important. You just need to see the film.

—Steven Harding

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