|By Ty Burr
||November 11, 2005
Dogged documentary presents a damning case against Wal-Mart
Robert Greenwald doesn't make impartial documentaries. Films like ''Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War" (2003) and ''Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism" (2004) are agit-pop: impassioned, fact-filled broadsides edited for maximum impact. Greenwald wants to get you steamed, and with ''Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price," he has presented his most damning case yet. The film convincingly presents the world's largest company as a mendacious, rapacious enemy of the American people. By the final credits you may want to picket Sam Walton's grave.
The movie's masterstroke is to avoid interviewing the usual anti-globalist suspects and let solid, hard-working middle Americans speak. These testimonies, taken from towns and cities across the country, are cripplingly blunt. Locals in Hearne, Texas; Hamilton, Mo.; and elsewhere tell of Wal-Mart destroying three-generation mom-and-pop businesses and gutting downtowns, in many cases with the aid of state and local subsidies. (In Denver, the company got a $1.7 million grant; meanwhile, three local schools were forced to close for lack of funds.)
Former Wal-Mart employees of all levels go on record about the company's mistreatment of its workers, from a healthcare program so expensive that employees let their kids stay sick or are forced to go on Medicaid (the film reels off some appalling numbers here) to anti-union activities that include hidden-camera surveillance and a rapid-response team from headquarters that arrives in a corporate jet.
Speaking of surveillance cameras, there are plenty inside the stores but none outside, which is why a small tidal wave of crime seems to have erupted in Wal-Mart parking lots nationwide. Lest you think Greenwald's being hysterical here, he unfurls dozens of local headlines across the screen and then sucker punches a viewer with the news that all came from just the first seven months of 2005.
The film goes to China to document the living and working conditions of people who work seven-day weeks making 18-cent toy trucks that Wal-Mart sells for $14.96 apiece. It interviews a former global services operations manager who wept at what he saw in the company's South American factories and who was ignored, sidelined, and fired for reporting it. Greenwald goes to Belmont, N.C., where a local woman tried to alert Wal-Mart that open bags of pesticide were spilling out next to a storm-drain leading to the river; no one at Bentonville, Ark., HQ was even sure there was an environmental officer in the company.
It goes on and on and on, and there are only a few missteps as far as I can tell. Greenwald can't resist a heavy hand in his soundtrack-music choices -- sensitive acoustic guitar for the people he likes; doomy Darth-Vader chords for anybody from Wal-Mart -- and he doesn't really need the ''Law and Order" cell-door slam when presenting his statistics. (And how about some sources for those statistics while we're at it?)
More important, the film never addresses the critical question of why the company's a success. Who shops there and how come? That's a larger story that opens out into issues of class and the culturally devastating chain-storing of small town America. It might have been nice to hear those topics acknowledged.
''Wal-Mart: The High Price of Low Cost" doesn't let the customers speak, though, and all we hear from the company's side are happy-happy TV commercials and videos of CEO Lee Scott's pep talks. Wal-Mart has so far responded only to the film's trailer, with a ''point-by-point rebuttal" (you can view it online at walmartfacts.com) that stoops to reprinting negative phrases from reviews of earlier Greenwald documentaries.
The sheer weight of the voices and evidence here can't be easily dismissed, though. ''Wal-Mart" is advocacy journalism at its most unsparing, and it demands to be seen, discussed, argued with, and acted upon.