'The Corporation' Pays High Dividends
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 16, 2004; Page WE39
I'M KIND of disappointed in filmmaker Michael Moore, who, by electing not to run the following on-screen message during the closing credits of "Fahrenheit 9/11," has missed a golden opportunity to cross-promote a second film in which he appears and whose message neatly dovetails with that of his wildly popular anti-Bush documentary: "For further information on the amoral profiteering of big business, please see 'The Corporation,' coming soon to a theater near you."
In "Fahrenheit," of course, Moore barely dips his pudgy little toe into the subject of the economic engine that drives the system of haves and have-nots, choosing instead to focus mainly on politics and political malfeasance this time around. "The Corporation," however, picks up the ball that Moore has previously carried to powerful effect in such films as "Roger & Me" and "The Big One" and runs with it -- right across the finish line. If you care about the environment, workers' rights, your own health and your children's future, you need to see this film.
Warning: The documentary may make you physically ill, and not just the segment about pus-tainted milk as the result of bioengineered dairy cows.
The central thesis of "The Corporation" is this: that business conglomerates have today grown so powerful and so insensitive to such issues as pollution of the biosphere and the reliance on sweat shops (to name but two of the more commonly cited costs of doing business in the global economy) that they have become, in a sense, Frankenstein's monsters, threatening to destroy their makers, i.e., us. As argued by filmmakers Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott and Joel Bakan (the latter of whom wrote the book, "The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power," on which the film is based), the thesis is cogent, scary and, at times, sickening.
Perhaps most disturbing of all the material set forth in the informative yet entertaining film is the notion, which arose in the 19th century, of the corporation as a legally defined "person," with the same rights, but only some of the same responsibilities, as flesh-and-blood people. Through meticulously assembled case studies and exhaustively researched history, the filmmakers lay a solid foundation for the claim that, operating on the assumption that a legal person must logically have a "personality," the typical corporation, with its charter-mandated and shareholder-oriented goal of self-interest above all else, is, in short, a psychopath.
Think about it. Using a checklist of symptoms from the psychiatrist's bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, "The Corporation" enumerates one piece of evidence after another supporting a diagnosis of corporate mental illness. Consider the all-too-common cost-cutting layoffs ("Incapacity to maintain enduring relationships"); recidivist lawbreaking ("Incapacity to experience guilt"); and the ever-popular production of dangerous merchandise ("Reckless disregard for the safety of others").
To be fair, not all corporations are demonized. While some companies (such as biotech giant Monsanto) are singled out for excoriating abuse, and others lionized (e.g., carpet tile manufacturer Interface Inc., whose chief executive, Ray Anderson, has undertaken the challenge of making his $1.4 billion company environmentally sustainable by 2020), it is the institution of the corporation itself that gets the most withering analysis.
In others words, as "The Corporation" sees it, lying to the cops, poisoning its customers, ruining its employees' lives and trashing the neighborhood are not flaws of the contemporary corporation, but features. Without them, it wouldn't work as well as it does. When profit is the highest goal, as ordained by the company's bylaws, and when paying penalties for continued misbehavior is considered cheaper than regulatory compliance, the corporation of today can be considered unhealthy by design, not accident.
And that, my friends, should be enough to make us all nauseated.
THE CORPORATION (Unrated, 145 minutes) -- Contains images of violence and rioting, land mine injuries, animals with birth defects and one or two spoken vulgarities. At Landmark's E Street Cinema.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
A protester from "The Corporation," a film that argues persuasively that most 21st-century corporations are, by the criteria of psychology, dangerous, mentally ill entities.