Within the obvious limitation of tackling its enormous titular subject, The Corporation is a surprisingly breezy, compulsively watchable audio-visual book for all of its 145 minutes. Exploded from the pages of Joel Bakan's book The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, Mark Achbar & Jennifer Abbott's unabashedly leftist documentary puts forward a gut-punch of a thesis on American corporate culture: a corporation is not only "a legal person" but—judged by its "behavior" and the diagnostic criteria of the World Health Organization—a psychotic person inflicting harm without remorse.
Corporations have only one obligation, say the film's talking heads, and it's a legal obligation: to protect the bottom line for its employees and stockholders. Seemingly benevolent pursuits, like "customer service" and so-called "corporate social responsibility," can be traced to profits. Among the interviewees are Milton Friedman, various representatives of corporate culture and the press, and celebrity liberals Michael Moore, Howard Zinn, and Noam Chomsky (Achbar co-directed the doc Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media).
Making delicious use of public domain footage from instructional films, commercial snippets, and news clips, Achbar and Abbott synthesize their own brand of anti-propaganda propaganda, a sort of "turnabout is fair play" attack that plays more like the enthusiastic educational agitprop of a liberal professor than journalism which professes to be fair and balanced. Yet The Corporation's case is awfully convincing, and if the arguments made onscreen for corporations are few, one can well understand the reticence of CEOs to face hard questions of responsibility versus profit.
The Corporation flips through its topics like a Rolodex, landing on chapter titles like "The Science of Exploitation" and subpoint case histories like "Sweatshops." Achbar, Abbott, and co-screenwriter Bakar serve up a discussion of the "cancer epidemic" and corporate pollution of the earth, an observation of water privatization schemes and the race to patent genomes, and straight talk about the financial windfalls of 9/11 and the Iraq war ("In devastation, there is opportunity," says a Wall Street pro). Not everyone will find the largely surface-skimming overview compelling, but the film fulfills its goal of being hugely provocative. Achbar and Abbott are at their best when they occasionally dig in deep and pull out a meaty story, like the systematic betrayal of Jane Akre and Steve Wilson, hired by corporate parent NewsCorp to be hard-hitting "Investigators" then ordered to quash a touchy but mortally vital scoop.
The film's most compelling presence is Interface CEO Ray Anderson, the world's largest carpet manufacturer. Recalling a years-past epiphany ("My goodness. One day people like me will be in jail"), Anderson explains his modest proposal of today, to end "intergenerational tyranny" through "doing no harm" or, in other words, corporate sustainability. As one interview subject puts it, "In our search for wealth and prosperity, we created something that was going to destroy us," but the film ends with a bit of hopeful uplift by championing "power to the people," whether it be voting, civil disobedience, the tearing down of corporate culture, or corporate responsibility from within its glass towers. To this end, the filmmakers include in the credits a run of web addresses for informative and watchdog sites, all of course to be found at "TheCorporation.com" (a site copyrighted by Big Picture Media Corporation).