Almost as divisive a social topic as abortion or gay marriage is that of behemoth big-box retailer Wal-Mart's effect on modern America – for those in many of the 50 states, shopping at Wal-Mart is an inescapable way of life, but despite its prevalence, Wal-Mart has become the equivalent of an economic epithet, a store synonymous with crushing mom-and-pop retailers, providing a bare minimum of benefits for employees and thoroughly dominating the American retail landscape. With his latest work, director Robert Greenwald (who previously threw the cinematic firebombs Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism and Uncovered: The War on Iraq) peels back that big box facade and explores Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price.
With such a massive corporation as his focus, it's to Greenwald's credit that he's able to fashion a largely cohesive narrative (in his commentary, Greenwald allows that the raw footage totaled over 350 hours) that isn't exactly objective journalism, but functions more as a raw, compelling social commentary, raising awareness to a startling topic: Wal-Mart, as posited by Greenwald and his army of producers, is systematically assimilating the world through its policies and practices. The film focuses on specific stories – such as the decimation of H&H Hardware in Middlefield, Ohio – that primarily take place in the United States, but Greenwald also broadens his focus to include harrowing stories of Wal-Mart's influence overseas; deadly working conditions in China contrast sharply with relatively content employees in Germany.
Obviously, Wal-Mart and its employees didn't consent to interviews (in fact, they were so concerned about the impact of Greenwald's film that they enlisted former Presidential advisers and created a "situation room" at the home office in Bentonville, Ark.); the former and current employees who do appear on camera are either anonymous or are clearly not long for employment with Sam Walton's baby – Greenwald is forced to rely upon clips of CEO Lee Scott speaking to offer up the corporation's side of the story. While not necessarily using Scott's comments as counterpoints, Greenwald at least attempts to present the company's side of the story.
Make no mistake, however – Wal-Mart is nothing short of demonized in this 90-minute film, as Greenwald delves into business practices, crime rates, hiring and firing stories, the gutting of small-town America and how Wal-Mart brazenly defies rules and regulations on an alarmingly regular basis. Positioned as a company achieving the dark side of the American dream, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price hoists the big box retailer by its own petard, revealing through carefully chosen commercials and soundbites just how falsely it presents itself to the consuming public.
Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price is a far from perfect film (Greenwald has a tendency to pound certain points into oblivion and while it's understandable, the lack of Wal-Mart's participation more or less hamstrings objectivity) but as a stirring, shocking piece of sensational filmmaking, it's the real deal.
Presented in a passable 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price is composed of various source materials – from abominable Internet-sourced video, replete with artifacts that make it barely watchable to newly filmed interview segments that look sharp and smooth, the visuals of Greenwald's film vary wildly and as such, makes for a transfer of spotty quality.
While the visuals are occasionally iffy, the aural component – Dolby stereo 2.0 – is relatively smooth and clearly heard; there are moments of distortion and drop-out due to source materials, but largely, every clip and bit of interview footage is heard without problem. Curiously, only Spanish and French subtitles are offered.
A healthy selection of supplemental material is on board: a condensed 20 minute version of the film, billed as the "Highlights of: The High Cost of Low Price," as well as a dense, informative and engaging commentary from Greenwald, eight mildly amusing parody commercials, playable separately or together; four featurettes - the six minute "Canada," the three minute "England," the two minute, 45 second "Our Moral Voices" and the eight minute "Don't Mourn ... Take Action!"; the seven minute featurette detailing the "spoofmakers" responsible for the faux Wal-Mart commercials and a 16-minute behind-the-scenes featurette.
While Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price isn't exactly objective, it is a passionate piece of social commentary that, if nothing else, draws attention to a controversial and relevant topic: the gradual, systematic assimilation of America and the world by the seemingly unstoppable Wal-Mart. Recommended.