With nearly 9 percent of the U.S. retail market to itself and $288 billion in annual sales, Wal-Mart takes in more revenue than most countries. And despite a swelling tide of allegations regarding unfair and illegal labor and environmental practices, Wal-Mart's reign continues unmolested. In his latest documentary, director Robert Greenwald (Outfoxed, Uncovered) dedicates himself to exposing the corporate malfeasance of America's largest employer.
And indeed, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price is an affecting piece of work. Greenwald goes to impressive lengths, interviewing past and present employees in the United States, Europe and China; speaking with independent retailers whose businesses were destroyed by Wal-Mart; capturing news footage covering myriad lawsuits against Wal-Mart; and supplying statistics on everything from how much Wal-Mart costs U.S. taxpayers ($1,557,000,000 annually) to how much it spends importing goods from China ($18 billion in 2004). The film is as infuriating as intended, and if its straight-to-DVD, grassroots-distribution plan works, it should play a significant role in the movement it has joined.
At the same time, Wal-Mart could use a few edits. Greenwald tends to overpromote his material through both camerawork and music. When the camera pans across an empty Main Street, abandoned since Wal-Mart came to town, Greenwald uses a sepia tint and sets the interlude to Bruce Springsteen's soulful rendition of "This Land is Your Land." In the director's statement, Greenwald calls this shot "haunting," "beautiful" and "emotional." You might call it cheese. The material itself is so damning, and the pain of the people who have suffered as a result of Wal-Mart's practices so evident, that we needn't be coaxed further into feeling.
In addition, Greenwald doesn't interview anyone from Wal-Mart. In the press material, we learn that he attempted to get interviews and was denied, though he makes no mention of this in the film. The same goes for the heroics required throughout production: Apparently, most people were unwilling to speak about Wal-Mart on the record for fear of retaliation; the company has been known to fire employees who speak against it. Even a distributor that had initially taken an interest in the documentary ended up balking, concerned that Wal-Mart might refuse to sell the company's other films.
So what makes Wal-Mart America's most despicable corporation? Greenwald's list of indictments runs long. In addition to driving most independent retailers out of business wherever it sets up shop, Wal-Mart engages in insidious union-busting, using surveillance cameras, intimidation and propaganda to turn employees away from organizing. Its wages are as meager as its health-care plan is expensive, so workers are encouraged to turn to public assistance. It has hired illegal immigrants to clean its stores overnight. It has discriminated against women and African-Americans. It has polluted the environment. It pays Chinese sweatshop employees less than $3 a day and factory workers in Honduras less than 20 cents an hour. And, though 80 percent of crime at Wal-Mart occurs in the parking lots, it chooses not to patrol its lots. (There are surveillance cameras--initially posted to bust suspected union organizers--but it's unclear whether anybody watches the monitors.)
Not a pretty picture. One of the strengths of the anti-Wal-Mart battle, and of Greenwald's film, is that many of the people involved are not the usual suspects, not the Noam Chomskys and Julia Butterfly Hills that we see in most films decrying corporate domination of American life and politics. Of course, Chomsky and Hill do excellent work, but they are noted activists with well-publicized opinions. In Wal-Mart, the subjects are mostly small-town Americans, often Republicans, who believe in capitalism but not, in the words of one independent retailer, in monopoly. Many employees once had great pride in their jobs, believing that they worked for a company that shared their American and Christian values.
The film ends with hope, by focusing on two communities that organized to keep the superstores out. It's lovely to see these grassroots efforts succeed, but isn't government intervention what's really needed? Shouldn't we all be pressing for anti-trust litigation and the enforcement of fair and legal labor and environmental practices? Little will change, it seems, until we do.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.