I had a hard time coming to grips with The Corporation. I ought to have been an instant fan; not only was I already interested in the subject matter that the documentary deals with, what I'd already learned predisposed me to agree with its highly critical approach. Let's give credit where it's due: The Corporation is an ambitious and idealistic film, one that manages to bring together an amazing variety of interview subjects to voice their thoughts on the various topics associated with the idea of "the corporation." These are some very smart, very well-educated people, and as we can see in the extensive uncut interview footage in the special features section on the DVD, they have a lot to say that's worth listening to.
But when it's all put together into the feature-length piece... the total effect is less than the sum of its parts. I kept wanting to like The Corporation, but in the end I didn't. I could intellectually appreciate certain parts, but I never engaged with it; I never felt that the film was taking me anywhere, or developing a coherent larger picture. The problem is not with substance, but with style and structure. To begin with, the film suffers from an excess of style. I find it rather ironic that I'm criticizing a film that's thoroughly anti-big business and anti-aggressive marketing on the basis of being too self-consciously manipulative of the viewer, but that's the case. I'm not arguing that a documentary should be dry and stodgy – far from it! -- but I do find it a bit off-putting when it seems to have borrowed the style book from music videos and television advertising.
The Corporation's style is glib and visually fractured. We get rapid-fire cuts between interview subjects and pieces of film footage; sometimes these clips are directly related to the subject that's being discussed, but often they're not. The film seems to make heavy use of these images as symbolism and to evoke emotional reactions in the viewer, to the point that I found it somewhat disconcerting. If the interview subject has been discussing the negative effects of corporate culture on society, and we're shown a montage of images of unhappy children and dying wildlife, the immediate emotional connection is of cause and effect. But is the connection really there?
In some cases, the answer is clearly "yes," as in the section in which an interviewee discusses his discovery of how a paper mill was dumping its pollutants into a local river: here, the footage of a disgusting, foam-covered river with sad-looking ducks is both factually correct and viscerally effective. We need to see things like this, to drive home the fact that "industrial growth" has consequences. On the other hand, this technique is repeated often throughout The Corporation, and many times there's no explicit connection made between the image and the content. We have to trust that the filmmakers chose those images for their accuracy in representing what's going on, and not, for instance, for their emotional impact in convincing the viewer that corporations are evil. But if we're not given any factual context, we can't really know. In that sense, The Corporation's use of images of dying fish and smoking trash heaps as an implicit criticism of corporate structure is just as much propaganda as a corporation's use of images of clear streams and lovely fields to imply the company's commitment to the environment. I lean toward believing The Corporation, but I'm not exactly inspired by confidence when the filmmakers use cheap stylistic tricks to make their points for them.
Unfortunately, the somewhat suspicious style of The Corporation is only one of its problems as a film. As I've said before, the actual subject matter of the documentary is quite interesting... but it's presented in such a way as to actively make it difficult to really learn anything from the film. Instead of delving into the subject directly, the filmmakers chose to explore the subject through the lens of an extended metaphor: that of the corporation as a psychotic. It's a mildly interesting comparison, for a few minutes... except that The Corporation picks it up and hammers it to death. Analyzing "the corporation" as a psychotic person becomes the dominant thread through most of the film, with the various topic areas arranged to support a "diagnosis" based on features like lack of guilt, inability to relate to others, and so on.
This extended metaphor does nothing to enhance our real understanding of the way that corporations function in our society. In fact, it gets in the way. Using this idea to structure the documentary means that no one topic is ever focused on for very long; examples of corporate behavior are mentioned and then tossed aside, perhaps to be returned to later in the film. This kind of circular structure makes it hard for the film to develop an overall argument or fill in the big picture coherently; we're never quite sure where we're going (or where we've been).
Interestingly, the last third or so of the film hints at what The Corporation could have been. The heavy-handed use of the "corporation as psychotic" is almost entirely dropped, and instead of jumping frantically from one topic to the next, the film actually settles on a few topics that it explores in more depth. While earlier in the film, the topic of bovine growth hormone had been mentioned and then tossed aside, here the film returns to the subject by focusing on two Fox News reporters who were prevented from reporting their findings on the dangers of rBGH because of pressure from the drug manufacturer. It's an excellent example of how corporate pressure directly affects the government of the U.S. as well as individuals who are kept in the dark about important health information. (The use of bovine growth hormone is banned in Canada and Europe because of its negative effects on the health of people who drink milk from rBGH-treated cows. If you haven't switched to drinking organic milk yet, maybe now would be a good time.) The issue of advertising to children is also given a reasonable amount of time, with the film giving us the example of how companies aggressively encourage anti-social behavior like nagging because it sells more kids' products.
Even with this better ending, there are still elements of The Corporation that don't work at all. The narrator is at the top of the list. Her half-whispered narration, with its odd intonation, is like nails on a blackboard. The narrative voiceover is supposed to help us understand the material; it shouldn't try to be stylish, at least not if we're expected to listen to it with interest for more than two hours.
If the entire film had been structured more clearly, with a better sense of what information the filmmakers wanted to convey to viewers, then The Corporation could have been a great success. As it is, though, it fails not in its ideas, but in the execution of its ideas. Ironically (I've been using that word a lot in relation to this film), as I was watching The Corporation, I was reminded of another program on corporations: Commanding Heights. That documentary was well structured, well organized, and interesting to watch, despite being horribly biased and misleading: the whole thing is slanted toward global capitalism (and was underwritten by several large corporations). Why couldn't we get that kind of presentation, but with decently critical content? The Corporation ought to fit the bill, but it doesn't.
I think that The Corporation has an important message, but I don't think it's put together the way it should be; it doesn't inform as much as it could (or should), and its glib, stylized approach may very well turn off as many viewers as it appeals to.
The Corporation is a two-DVD set, packaged in a double-wide plastic keepcase. A small insert has comments from the filmmakers on the film.
The Corporation appears in an anamorphically enhanced widescreen transfer, at the film's original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The film makes use of footage from a wide variety of sources, including older television broadcasts and educational films, so it's not surprising that the image quality varies. It looks reasonable on the whole, and the interview footage is clean and crisp-looking.
The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack handles the material well, with all the participants' voices coming across clearly and sounding natural. A Dolby "descriptive video" soundtrack is also included, as are English closed captions and Spanish and French subtitles.
The makers of The Corporation certainly didn't stint when it came time to collect special features for the DVD. Several features appear on the first disc, and the second disc is completely loaded.
On the first DVD, two commentary tracks are included. The first is from Mark Achbar (the executive producer and co-director) and Jennifer Abbot (the co-director and editor). Their comments were recorded separately and then edited together into one track, so there's no interplay between the two of them, but they do offer some interesting thoughts on the film, as does Joel Bakan (the writer and co-creator) in the second commentary track.
Several other special features are included on the first disc. A 27-minute question-and-answer section has the filmmakers answering eight different questions about the film, taken from different sources. Eight deleted scenes, running a total of 16 minutes, are also included here. A "play all" feature is provided for each of these. Next, we get a 39-minute interview of Joel Bakan on "Majority Report," and a seven-minute segment of Katherine Dodds discussing the marketing of The Corporation. Lastly, trailers for The Corporation and Manufacturing Consent are included.
Disc 2 has fewer sections but far more content. What we have here is a gigantic collection of additional interview footage from 40 people interviewed for The Corporation, running over five hours in total length. Each person has their material broken into various segments by subject; you can access them either by selecting the person (from the "Hear More From..." section) or by selecting the subject area you're interested in (from the "Topical Paradise" section). The one problem here is that the menus are badly designed. The "Hear More From" menu presents the interviewers by picture, with no names or titles identifying them unless you select the person individually. At that point, you can move through the whole set using the "next" and "previous" buttons, but it's still a bit awkward.
In the "Topical Paradise" section, you should be aware that there are actually three columns of subject headings, with only the currently selected one appearing at a time. The un-selected columns are faded out into the background so much that I almost didn't notice that they were there, which would be a shame, since the topical index is, in my opinion, the best way to browse through this material. Oh, and I noticed that the top-level menu locks up (not allowing you to select anything) if you return to it from a sub-menu, or if you let the DVD sit for too long before selecting anything.
The additional interview footage on Disc 2 is really impressive, showcasing a wide variety of people and a broad range of topics. It's interesting just to browse through the "Topical Paradise" section and see what's available: there are great topics including branding, corporate crime, social responsibility, corporations and government, ethics and values, externalities, marketing to kids, the market in general, trading, and so on. If only the film as a whole were better structured, to have made better use of all the material the filmmakers gathered! At any rate, if you were intrigued by the material presented in The Corporation, the mass of additional interviews here will keep you happy for hours. (Literally.)
I ended up being dissatisfied with The Corporation as a film; I think the stylistic and organizational choices that the filmmakers made are really counterproductive, making what could have (and should have) been a gripping and informative piece into a flashy, glib, and unfortunately rather unengaging film. I was already interested in the subject matter, as well as being inclined to agree with the filmmakers' point of view, to begin with, which I would have thought would make me appreciate the film more than I did. Would viewers be even more put off if they weren't already sympathetic? Perhaps – but perhaps The Corporation would play better to an audience that wasn't already familiar with its subject. The film really didn't have any surprises for me, and I suspect that may have sapped it of some of its effect. If you aren't familiar with the topics covered here, especially corporate manipulation of the news and government, and high-powered advertising techniques (especially those aimed at children), you will probably find more merit in The Corporation. With that in mind, and considering the really outstanding bonus content that's presented on the DVD, I'll go ahead and give the film a mild "recommended," though for myself I'd consider it more of a rental choice.