[box cover]

The Corporation

In the battle between content and style in contemporary documentary filmmaking, The Corporation comes down on the side of style. Not that that's a bad thing — Jennifer Abbott and Mark Achbar's 2003 critique of the pervasive nature of modern-day corporations, which at this point seem to affect virtually every aspect of human existence, does a nice job of preaching to the converted. So much so, in fact, that it's racked up an astronomical User Rating on IMDb.com. The only problem is that it's hard to believe that anyone inclined to defend advanced capitalism would be swayed to the slightest degree by what amounts to an overlong (2 hrs, 25 min.), cheeky political infomercial. In fact, the manner in which The Corporation makes its greatest impact is at the same time the cause of its own undoing: Utilizing the persuasive power of cinema, it often bypasses some of the most fundamental rules of journalism, which means it might get a B+ in film class, but it barely earns a gentleman's C in reporting. And some might even be inclined to lower its grade in film as well. In a genre that's become increasingly more transparent thanks both to the cinema vertié movement of the 1950s and the influence of investigative reporting, The Corporation echoes mannerisms of a bygone era. For example, the faceless, "voice of God" narrator (in this case a soothing, disembodied woman's voice, TV actress Mikela J. Mikael) is purposely opaque. While verité purists would insist that viewers should be constantly reminded that they are watching a documentary, Abbot & Achbar's efforts seem designed to mesmerize as much as inform. Oddly enough, where they manage to break the "fourth wall" is precisely where the shouldn't, by having their interview subjects directly address the camera rather than an interviewer (implied as offscreen), creating a false sense of intimacy between subject and audience, while also inflating the speaker's credibility. All of the speakers are lucid, and many are entertaining, but there is hardly any attempt to broaden the film's agenda — Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, and Milton Freedman freely discuss the dangers of rampant capitalism, and if there is any attempt to express a corporation's "point of view," it's nearly always done with a vintage promotional film from the 1950s (or earlier) that inevitably makes the object of this cinematic exercise seem dated, simplistic, and disingenuous.

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What a better film The Corporation would have been were an avid devotee of Adam Smith or Ayn Rand given a chair and a camera to peer into, passionately defending the corporate institution, counterpunching with the likes of Chomsky and Moore. One would hope the debate would elicit clarity, but Abbot & Achbar clearly don't feel the need to approach their task as if they were producing a segment on "60 Minutes." One of the film's strongest sequences involves a lawsuit brought by former Fox News employees against their network over a spiked story on agro-chemical giant Monsanto. It's compelling, but ultimately flawed because we're never told that either Fox News or Monsanto were given the opportunity to respond (and presumably declined) — a mistake one would expect from a first-year journalism student. Furthermore, the 1996 execution of Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa is invoked in just a handful of words, ignoring the sheer complexity of the case for the sake of pushing emotional buttons. Yes, Royal Dutch Shell's relationship with the Nigerian dictatorship is worth investigation, but that seems like a documentary in and of itself. And that's where The Corporation comes up short, by trying to contain at least six different documentaries into a single epic that runs too long but never very deep. Scored with the sort of creepy tonal music one normally hears in cheap political ads, focus is sacrificed for the sake of a laundry list of charges that may sound familiar to many but is too disorganized to present a coherent, cogent argument — save that corporations would be diagnosed as "psychotic" if placed on a psychiatrist's couch. Fundamentally, the enormous issues The Corporation raises have less to do with corporate practices and more with how much latitude politicians, consumers, and shareholders are willing to grant them, and during the last 20 minutes the film does begin to arrive at a constructive vision of the future, with an inherent call to action. But with cinema posing as journalism, a dizzying array of topics, and an agenda-driven perspective, The Corporation does more than entertain those sympathetic to its arguments. After a while, it begins to feel as if it's manufacturing consent.

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Zeitgeist's two-disc DVD release of The Corporation offers a solid full-frame transfer of the film, compiled from a variety of sources — the transfer and audio quality are solid throughout. Supplements on Disc One include "Q & As," a collection of interview segments featuring directors Jennifer Abbott and Mark Achbar and writer Joel Bakan (27 min.), eight deleted scenes, video of Bakan appearing on Janeane Garofalo's radio program "The Majority Report" (39 min.), a look at the film's grassroots marketing (7 min.), and trailers. Disc Two is even more packed, with additional interview segments from twenty of the film's subjects, as well as an extensive "Topical Paradise" with even more interviews. Dual-DVD keep-case.
—JJB



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