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The Company Line 

A new film denounces corporate ruthlessness.

A protester, gagged and bar-coded.
  • A protester, gagged and bar-coded.
Near the beginning of The Corporation, the narrator posits the documentary's thesis: "We present the corporation as a paradox," she says, "an institution that creates great wealth, but causes enormous and often hidden harm." In fact, this formulation is not a paradox: Creating wealth is not the opposite of causing harm. Furthermore, though The Corporation occasionally mentions that corporations can do good, the sense of balance suggested by the thesis isn't fooling anyone. This is a polemic made by people who want to see the end of corporations as we know them.

As well it should be. After scarcely more than 15 minutes, in which the film explores the history of the corporation and how it won its status as a "legal person," the evidence has accrued in favor of change, if not extinction. And The Corporation continues -- featuring interviews with 40 activists, authors, stakeholders, CEOs, marketers, and Nobel Prize winners -- for a beefy two and a quarter hours beyond that. Directors Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbot seek to expose every way in which corporations harm so much that we hold dear.

It can be a lot to take. In fact, it can be obliterating. And that's one of the reasons that The Corporation isn't as good as it might have been. As a clear, exhaustive, and highly intelligent discussion of one of the most pressing issues of our time, it's a success. As a work of documentary, however, it's flawed: by its failure to limit its scope, by its strangely stylized narration, and by its lack of a story.

Pre-Civil War, a corporation was a group of people chartered by the public to accomplish a specific task, usually for the public good. When the task was complete, the corporation disbanded. After the passage of the 14th Amendment, which bestowed equal rights upon African Americans, corporate lawyers argued that a corporation was a "legal person" and therefore deserved rights. Shockingly, the Supreme Court bought it. Today, the slippery legal status of corporations is what allows them to pillage and pollute the earth, trample human rights, undermine democracy, and lay off untold thousands of workers whenever they please.

One of the film's most memorable conceits is its psychological evaluation of corporations. If a corporation is a legal person, the directors posit, let's examine this person's mental health. Using diagnostic criteria from the World Health Organization and the DSM-IV, they catalog the corporation's personality characteristics: self-interested, inherently amoral, incapable of feeling guilt, unconcerned about breaching social and legal standards to get its way, etc. The diagnosis? Psychopath.

It's too bad that The Corporation doesn't have a plot or a narrative arc to thread us through its copious content. Particularly here, where there is a mother lode of data, we could use the assistance of a narrative structure. Failing that, the directors might have cut the film by half an hour; it takes two hours to get to anything remotely resembling hope, and by then we are nearly crushed.

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