One of the pleasures of living in a capitalist society is watching corporate CEOs get hauled off to jail, preferably in handcuffs. A few bad apples? An entire bushel of bad apples? Or is the modern corporation, which manages to permeate our lives while maintaining a low profile, rotten to the core? That's the question posed by The Corporation, a muck-compiling documentary by Canadians Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott and Joel Bakan. As "fair and balanced" as anything you might find on Fox News, The Corporation offers a sweeping indictment of this hallowed legal construct, which, thanks to the 14th Amendment of the U. S. Constitution, has all the rights and privileges of an American citizen. The amendment was designed to protect newly freed slaves. Instead, it may have enslaved us all.
Or not. How far you're willing to go toward buying the documentary's argument may depend on where you were standing in the first place. Not that the filmmakers don't make their case: Clocking in at just under two and a half hours, The Corporation is so thorough it could serve as a legal brief. But it may be too thorough, too sweeping an indictment, the bill of particulars stretching from here to the horizon. It's divided into sections, each one given a large-caps heading: BIRTH, A LEGAL PERSON, CASE HISTORIES, etc. And except for the narrator, who sounds like NPR's Terry Gross calmly announcing the end of the world, the argument's driven forward by a series of talking heads: usual-suspect lefties like Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, but also unusual-suspect righties like Milton Friedman and Peter Drucker.
There's also, in the interest of "fairness" and "balance," a number of CEOs past and present, none of whom seems to be sprouting devil's horns and one of whom seems to be sprouting angel's wings. Ray Anderson, who speaks in the biblical cadences of a Southern preacher, is the head of Interface, the world's largest commercial carpet manufacturer; and somewhere on the Road to Ruin, Anderson saw the light, redirecting his company toward environmental sustainability. Just listening to this prophet of doom forswear the profits of doom is enough to restore your faith in whatever. Alas, he may be one of the few good apples, the rest of the bushel not so much rotten as mushy. The former head of Royal Dutch Shell recalls the time a group of demonstrators showed up on his front lawn. Did he call the cops? On the contrary, he chatted with his guests while his wife served them tea.
In other words, corporate CEOs are people, too. But so are corporations, remember, and the filmmakers, indulging in Swiftian satire, take that idea about as far as it'll go, subjecting them to a Personality Diagnostic Checklist. Reckless disregard for the safety of others: check. Deceitfulness: check. Incapacity to experience guilt: check. Failure to conform to social norms: check. Callous unconcern for the feelings of others: check. Incapacity to maintain enduring relationships: check. Diagnosis: psychopath. As amusing as this little exercise is, smiles turn to frowns when you stop to consider some of the crazy things that corporations have done recently, like buying up the rights to "Happy Birthday" ($10,000 a shot, if you want to use it in your next movie), privatizing rainwater in Bolivia and, of course, destroying the planet.
Yes, but who exactly is to blame? The CEOs? The shareholders? The government? Us? Them? Me? You? The Corporation builds such a solid case against "the corporation" that you start fishing around for another way to organize our business affairs, but the documentary doesn't take that route, suggesting instead that we return to the good ol' days, when corporations knew their place. A lovely idea, but don't hold your breath. Or hold it until November, when we'll see whether another documentary helps swing an election. The Corporation isn't nearly as funny as Fahrenheit 9/11, even though it tries to crack jokes on occasion. And it doesn't have Michael Moore's common touch, his chumminess with John and Jane Doe. But in its own throw-the-book-at-'em way, the movie means business. No tea on the lawn this time.