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The Corporation

The Corporation
2003 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 145 min. / Street Date April 5, 2005 / 29.95
Starring: Jane Akre, Ray Anderson, Maude Barlow, Chris Barrett, Noam Chomsky, Peter Drucker, Samuel Epstein, Milton Freidman, Naomi Klein, Susan E. Linn, Luke McCabe, Robert Monks, Michael Moore, Vandana Shiva, Steve Wilson
Cinematography Mark Achbar, Rolf Cutts, Jeff Koffman, Kirk Tougas
Art Direction Henry Faber
Film Editor Jennifer Abbott
Original Music Leonard J. Paul
Written by Joel Bakan, Harold Crooks
Produced by Mark Achbar, Bart Simpson
Directed by Jennifer Abbott, Mark Achbar

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The Corporation is The Incredibles of activist documentaries -- it is almost impossible not to be energized by it. It so clearly lays out an explanation of the nature of real power in the modern world that literally any viewer living and breathing will be compelled to fundamentally alter their thinking. Originally created to help private interests do work for the public good, the institution of the corporation has all but swallowed up democracy. Its pursuit of profit knows neither boundaries nor limits. It can decide what information is fit to be broadcast on our News programs, subordinating the public good to the interests of corporate public relations.

After seeing The Corporation these words won't seem like marginalized yammering or a crackpot conspiracy rant. Nothing in the film is exaggerated. After a few minutes we realize that exaggeration isn't necessary.


In 23 chapters, the public institution of the corporation is traced to its origin, defined and examined in detail. Because a corporation is a legally defined "person," the narrator (Mikela J. Mikael) asks what kind of person it is. The balance of the show demonstrates that modern corporations fit all of the formal definitions of the psychopath: 1) Callous unconcern for the feelings of others, 2) Incapacity to maintain enduring relationships, 3) Reckless disregard for the safety of others, 4) Deceitfulness: repeated lying and conning others for profit, 5) Inability to experience guilt, and 6) Failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors. All are illustrated with reasoned examples, from strikebreaking to running sweatshops to making deals in wartime with enemy companies. 1 A damning explication of how Monsanto suppressed news about cancer-causing dairy chemicals shows how corporate interests are routinely placed above the common good. A stinging explanation of how corporations use government military assistance to "privatize" natural resources in foreign countries extends to Bolivia, where companies tried to make the population pay for access to its own water supply --including rainwater.  

In the year after Fahrenheit 911 we've seen an upswing in the frequency of political advocacy docus - "position editorial films," more accurately -- that do not get to the center of the major modern problem. Even docus on Noam Chomsky tend to skim around the main issues and take defensive positions that are easy targets for spin doctors and political attack dogs. The Corporation doesn't spend its time racking up volumes of redundant testimony, ambushing corporate executives for sport or finding juicy cinematic ways to express contempt for "the enemy." The show doesn't think in terms of enemies.

What we see is a reasoned argument that starts with a history lesson not taught in schools. Corporations in the first half of the 18th century were chartered when the resources to construct things like bridges could only be found in private hands. The creation of legal "persons" was meant to protect individuals from undue liability in public projects, usually within strictly defined limits. Clever lawyers used the 14th Amendment - designed to extend the rights of recently freed slaves - to extend the rights of corporate persons as well, permitting such unintended things as one corporation buying another. Living persons cannot buy and sell one another, but corporate "persons" can.

The key to the The Corporation is that it does not get bogged down along the way with attacks on public figures or smug grandstanding. We're shown that there is no legal conspiracy at work because the very nature of a corporation is what leads to the abuse of power. To a corporation, issues not relating to the making of money -- including human factors -- are considered "externalities" of no concern. Thus, when chaotic events like the invasion of Iraq or 9/11 occur, the corporate banking world thinks only of its holdings in gold, which always rise sharply in value with such calamities.

Without becoming overtly political, The Corporation documents the Marine Corps general who led most of the military invasions of Central American countries in the 1920s and 30s, and has news film of him publicly refusing to become (quote) "a gangster for capitalism." This was in 1935 when some anti-New Deal corporations were investigating the possibility of a fascist takeover of the government!

The Corporation makes the clearest case so far (covered in docus like Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media) against the corporate hold on the information we get about important public issues. A news team hired by Fox is given a fancy "undercover squad" hype job, but when they turn in a story revealing that Monsanto's cancer-causing drugs are putting Florida's milk supply at risk, Monsanto threatens the network with a loss of advertising dollars. Their story is killed and the reporter's jobs are threatened. The news team is flatly told that the news is what the company says it is, not what they report. Bribes are tried, and then the reporters endure 83 revisions in which the lawyers negate or soften every reference to Monsanto's reckless disregard for the public health. When it finally becomes a court case, the corporate lawyers are eventually able to "establish" that there's no law saying that the News we hear actually has to be true!

The corporate lack of accountability is bottomless. Kathy Lee Gifford goes on camera to apologize for the terrible sweatshop conditions under which "her" line of clothing is manufactured, promising change. The media uproar increases awareness of appalling corporate labor practices for a few weeks. But nothing changes at the sweatshop level. Even CEOs come on camera to report that their pro- community and pro- environmental programs are PR smokescreens used mainly to promote their corporate logos.

The docu also makes the only completely understandable case I've heard for anti-globalization. What it means is that multinational companies, by buying legal rights in foreign countries, can simply "privatize" any resource they want, as they already have done with most of the arable land in many South American countries.

When we hear about the "privatization" of social security, we're really talking about putting public monies in the hands of profit-seeking corporations. The comparison is made with the early Fire Brigades. If a building did not contribute to its neighborhood brigade, they'd let it burn. Fire protection has until now been considered to be too important for private companies to profit from, along with water supplies, power supplies, police protection, and the telephone service. All of the above except firemen and police have been mostly replaced by corporate systems, public utilities run for private profit.

One of the best things about The Corporation is that it is not dispiriting. Viewers won't turn it off as just more bad news, because it has useful information and offers hope for solutions. Our response is not, "There may be some truth there but the issue is more complex than this," or, "This is so self-congratulatory and sarcastic that it will just turn people off." The major interviewees include seven CEOs of big companies, VPs, stockbrokers and a really nasty corporate spy with an appalling record of dirty tricks. Noam Chomsky makes mostly supporting remarks; some of the best bites come from impressively brilliant commentators like Naomi Klein (whose bright and hopeful face should be on calendars). Michael Moore is seen a couple of times but only in interview situations and in a reflective mode. He marvels at the irony that corporations are so focused on the bottom line, they regularly publish his popular dissenting books.

The show ends on a positive note with spokespeople from India and Bolivia talking about small battles won on the local level. It's not a short film but everything we see makes us want to learn more and see "public institutions" put back on a more humanitarian course.

Zeitgeist's DVD of The Corporation is a solidly mounted disc with sterling qualities. The enhanced picture is of excellent quality, as are the majority of the film clips, advertising and promotional excerpts and old industrial movie clips we see along the way. The sound is excellent and Leonard J. Paul's music a fine accompaniment. The writing and editorial expertise involved is to be applauded - fancy digital effects are employed only in the service of more efficient communication. A lot of gripping information is conveyed without giving us graphic-hype headaches.

This is a two-disc set. Disc one has some features that will calm the nerves of those who might believe The Corporation is itself a left-wing conspiracy. Never fear, an entity called the Big Picture Media Corporation owns the film! The small group of writers, producers and directors that made the picture are seen on talk shows explaining where they're from (Canada), who paid for the show, why they made it, etc. Full disclosure. The first disc also has some extended interviews, eight deleted scenes and two audio commentaries. Disc two is an impressive resource: Over five hours of additional interview footage, searchable by topic or interview subject.

There are optional subs in English, French and Spanish. For the wary or simply those not interested in buying documentaries, I highly recommend The Corporation as an essential rental choice. At the very least, after watching you'll feel more like an informed citizen and less like a spoon-fed cog in somebody else's machine.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Corporation rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: deleted scenes, "Q&A's" on the origin of the film, extended interviews with the makers, audio commentaries, five hours+ additional interview material.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 25, 2005


1. The film discusses American corporations that continued relationships with German Nazi companies during WW2. My newspaper this very morning contains allegations that American corporations have been unlawfully selling secret nuclear hardware to Pakistan.

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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