Just as he did with Outfoxed, documentarian Robert Greenwald takes aim in his latest effort at a corporate giant — this time, Wal-Mart. And as before, his approach presents more facts than opinions, a tactic that separates Greenwald from Michael Moore, whose documentaries, built around the filmmaker as star, might better be called “essay films.” Greenwald’s is a brave choice — one that will likely always keep him from the heights of popularity that Moore has achieved. Face it, people will see a Michael Moore film before going to a more straightforward documentary, simply because Moore’s films are wonderfully entertaining and funny, as well as informative and maddening.
But Greenwald’s may be the savvier approach in terms of making an impact, because it’s harder to argue facts than opinions. And there is no shortage of facts in Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price. It will be argued that a lot of the material — the poverty-level wages, the hours worked off the clock, the union-busting techniques, the racial and sexual discrimination, the destruction of smaller businesses, the importation of cheap goods from sweatshops in China, etc. — is not exactly revelatory.
And that’s true to a degree, but the point of a documentary like this — or even like Moore’s Fahrenheit 911 — is to marshal those things into a confined space of 90 or so minutes and thereby empower them by their sheer collective scope. When you see them all at one time, it’s much harder to turn a blind eye to them.
Greenwald is also very shrewd in his tendency to focus his attention on the very people who favor the conservative policies that give big business the greater freedom to ride roughshod over both the law and common decency in search of corporate profits. Several of the stories contained in the film — tales of the destruction of long-standing family businesses that couldn’t compete with Wal-Mart prices and tactics — center on traditional conservatives — an approach that lifts the film out of the area of politics per se and keeps it from being another case of “preaching to the choir.” In other words, Greenwald paints a portrait — one that has Wal-Mart executives frantically countering with damage-control plans (oh, yes, they’re afraid of this film’s potential impact) — that says the corporate juggernaut is sticking it to all of us, regardless of political ideology.
The one thing Greenwald — perhaps wisely — sidesteps is the issue of the consumer as a participant in the Wal-Mart takeover. Surely, it’s obvious that if we refused to shop at Wal-Mart, the chain would not have spread like it has, and that’s a truth the film doesn’t address. Nor does Greenwald take up the question of where else can Wal-Mart employees, or anyone else impacted by the store’s policies, afford to shop but the cheapest place in town? Of course, the image of consumers jumping ship is what the corporate suits are afraid of here. What if the people who view this film take its message to heart? What if, indeed.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke