Documentary film has long been mired in debates about objectivity. Once strived for amongst serious documentarians, the notion of an objective documentary slowly degraded as discussion became dominated by the idea that objectivity is impossible. Two new documentaries about Wal-Mart ignore the old debate entirely, shifting the question from whether objectivity is possible to whether it is even desirable. In the process, they reconstruct the documentary as a filmed editorial in which the arguments fit neatly into niches well-carved by the pages of America’s political journals.
Wal-Mart: The High Cost of a Low Price, the latest film from progressive activist Robert Greenwald, and Why Wal-Mart Works: And Why That Makes Some People Crazy, the first film in a planned series of free-market documentaries by director Ron Galloway, are both part of a new strain of documentary that seeks to use film as a tool for political activism. Low-budget and low-style, the films offer competing political perspectives on the retailer’s more controversial practices, pitting free-market academic ideas against the egalitarian appeal of progressivism.
Both High Cost and Why Wal-Mart Works eschew the high-style visual showboating of, say, Michael Moore’s documentary polemics, and instead opt for a straightforward, unpretentious procession of talking heads. Composed almost entirely of interviews with a few interspersed title cards, neither film makes any prominent efforts toward showmanship. The few bits of filmic flash that High Cost attempts to inject, usually in the form of animated text, are mildly embarrassing, like a high-school student’s first experiment with iMovie. Galloway’s film has the sense to avoid such amateur theatrics and comes off better for it.
If un-stylishly produced, however, both films are efficiently structured, transitioning effortlessly from topic to topic through a variety of framing devices. High Cost demarcates each of its different attacks on the retail giant with truncated statements by Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott in an attempt to make the company appear disingenuous. The film will, for example, show Scott talking about fair wages and follow it with an employee complaining of low hourly pay. Why Wal-Mart Works uses a simpler device, designating each of its segments with concise title cards that usually label one of the anti-Wal-Mart sentiments to which it’s going to respond. Structural techniques such as these are standard operating procedure amongst essayists, and the result is that both documentaries feel more like op-eds than films.
And, like most editorials, each of the films uses prototypical argument styles from their respective political factions. Greenwald’s film is almost purely egalitarian in its appeal. His interview subjects tell personal stories of perceived oppression by a corporate monolith, and there is much talk of feelings and fairness. The few statistics he does provide are not attributed (at least within the film), and their inclusion is mostly offhand; the bulk of the argument is made through sentiment.
Consequently, Greenwald’s movie comes off as little more than a forum for disgruntled former employees and jilted competitors to grouse about how Wal-Mart has wronged them. It’s a 97-minute list of individual grievances that, in standard pro-labor form, assails a legitimate business without looking at the larger economic picture.
But a more comprehensive scope is exactly what is afforded Why Wal-Mart Works. Topically, the two films cover much of the same territory, but Why Wal-Mart Works contrasts starkly with High Cost in that its arguments rely heavily on a bevy of economic experts. Think tanks, universities, and financial analysts are all consulted; even Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit fame makes an appearance. The academic nature of some of their remarks might occasionally be a bit much–the beginning of the film features a discussion of how our nation’s social mood is in a negative trend–but it lends itself to far more credibility than the Do It Yourself economists in High Cost who claim to be for freedom–and then argue for more government control.
As with many arguments made by free-market proponents, Why Wal-Mart Works’ skews heavily towards economic punditry, but unlike High Cost, it is not a one-trick film. Why Wal-Mart Works also includes the deeply personal stories of Wal-Mart workers eager and willing to defend their employer. Especially touching is Sha-ron, who literally breaks into tears when describing the positive effect that working at Wal-Mart has had on her life. The film also visits the bustling downtown of Boone, N.C., to provide a series of interviews with teenagers and young adults who stumble awkwardly through their conflicting feelings about Wal-Mart’s effect on communities.
And although Why Wal-Mart Works has a clear, pro-Wal-Mart agenda, it is far more convincing because it allows us to see those conflicting feelings. Near the beginning of the film, an on-camera Galloway says that “there are two sides to every argument, and that’s what we’re trying to show.” Galloway’s experts admit that Wal-Mart isn’t perfect, but make a substantive case that, overall, the store does far more good than harm. Greenwald’s film, on the other hand, is self-righteous agitprop that recklessly hurls accusations against the retailer in hopes that one of them will do some damage. Much like global warming, the company has become an activist’s punching bag–a handy mark on which to blame all the world’s ills.
If both films disregard objectivity in favor of making their biases clear, it is Greenwald’s that seems most skewed by its leanings. Unable to see beyond his hatred for a corporation that provides Americans with billions in savings each year, his film’s insistence on Wal-Mart’s unabashed evil is proof that Galloway’s movie was titled well: Wal-Mart does work, and that truly makes some people–like Robert Greenwald–crazy.