Could you make a satirical film about bad business? Is corporate greed the stuff of giggles?
Well, yes, you can, as proved by Michael Moore with "Roger & Me," his 1989 General Motors-bashing documentary. But in Robert Greenwald's "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price," which begins screening in Washington tomorrow, there is no satire, no giggling.
Moore's brilliance was his on-camera pursuit of an interview with GM CEO Roger Smith, the wickedly funny "pets or meat" spoof, the humanity in his outrage of seeing his home town decimated by a ruthless corporation. You knew he wasn't exactly playing fair, but he had a point, and he used the fine art of mockery to make it.
Instead, Greenwald, who has a thing for the titular colon ("Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism" and "Uncovered: The War on Iraq") presents about what you'd expect: a documentary that slams the nation's largest employer with depressing anecdotes designed to show that working for Wal-Mart is about as much fun as getting beaten with a stick.
In between, there are depressing revelations showing how the company kills small-town competitors. For relief, there are depressing statistics.
Here's one: a company memo that purports to show that nearly half of the children of Wal-Mart's hourly workforce have no medical coverage or are on some form of government assistance.
Sad, sad, sad employees. Bad, bad, bad Wal-Mart.
Okay, we get it.
Greenwald isn't interested in subtlety. He prefers a sledgehammer. Wal-Mart, beset by class-action lawsuits, environmental issues and accusations of using illegal immigrants as workers and providing shabby health benefits, is perhaps the ripest target for a hostile doc.
Like "Roger & Me," Greenwald's film poses questions about the nature of corporate responsibility -- but there's no narrator, and no real sense of personal compassion here. (The film wears its politics on its sleeve, and it's clearly intended to make the company look as bad as possible, never questioning whether larger factors might also be at work in Wal-Mart's rampaging success.)
Instead, the film is structured around short clips of Chairman Lee Scott's out-of-touch speech to stockholders and the company's sunny commercials. Each proclaims the Wal-Mart's red-white-and-blue attributes -- support of employees, commitment to environmental standards, safety of customers and so on.
Then there's a segment in which current and former Wal-Mart employees, and judges, and crime victims, say the company does exactly the opposite.
When the company touts its largess, for example, the film claims that Wal-Mart employees donated $5 million of their paltry wages to help co-workers in need. By comparison, the founding Walton family -- billionaires of the first order -- donated $6,000 to the fund, the movie says. When Scott praises himself in a televised interview for saving the company $200 by sharing a hotel room with another senior executive, the film says he made $27 million last year. The average hourly employee? $13,000.
A Texas judge is interviewed on camera, testifying that the company's representatives in court are outrageous; another is quoted as saying that perjury seems to be a corporate policy.
Greenwald is taking the guerrilla approach to getting the film out, distributing it to churches, community centers, activist groups and a handful of theaters. (The official Washington premiere on Tuesday is sold out, but other show venues and times can be found at www.walmartmovie.com.) You get the idea, watching this, that they'll be handing out volunteer sheets when the lights come up, looking to take the battle against those always-low prices one step further.
Taking the propaganda battle one step further, there's also a pro-Wal-Mart film, from filmmakers Ron and Robert Galloway and sanctioned by the company. "Why Wal-Mart Works: And Why That Makes Some People C-r-a-z-y" will be released on DVD by Hannover House on Nov. 15
Greenwald's film concludes with local communities gearing up to keep Wal-Mart out. On-screen, the word "Victory!" flashes repeatedly when they win, just in case you missed the point. Still, a scene in Inglewood, Calif., may be the most effective in the film. Usually, minority communities have a hard time attracting major retail outlets and employers. Here, they join forces to keep Wal-Mart out -- a scathing indictment of a store that styles itself as a friend to the working family. The battle against those low, low prices continues.
Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price (95 minutes; for locations see www.walmartmovie.com) is not rated.