Filmmaker Robert Greenwald, previously best known as the man behind "Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism," is probably going to be known as the man behind "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price" for a while.
Wal-Mart employee Stan Fortune gives an interview. (Brave New Films)
His new 95-minute movie on the big-box retailer finally released this week—not in theaters, but in churches, schools, homes and wherever someone was willing to pony up $10 for a screening kit that included the DVD.
Greenwald is known as a partisan filmmaker, and people generally approach one of his works already feeling one way or another. Wal-Mart itself, obviously, has been pushing back, posting its own news releases at www.walmartfacts.com and producing videos attacking Greenwald and his credibility.
But all of this is merely cushion for the thing itself: the movie (or documentary, or special-interest video, depending on your perspective).
"Wal-Mart" combines interviews and footage shot (on miniDV) especially for the project with news footage of the company, Wal-Mart surveillance video, Wal-Mart commercials, Wal-Mart employee rallies and even some bits of Comedy Central's Jon Stewart poking fun at the company, which employs more than 1.2 million people worldwide.
The result is something between Michael Moore and a "20/20" investigation. Greenwald, with the help of "field producers" in a bold example of "participatory filmmaking" (wherein he solicits footage from average Joes) interviews former Wal-Mart managers and employees—from the common "associate" to the man tasked with making sure the company's overseas factories are humanely treating workers.
Greenwald and company hammer Wal-Mart's record on the environment, equality, wages, health care, urban development, local and global economic impacts and even parking lot crime. If that's not enough, the Walton family itself is taken to task for its alleged pittance of charitable giving.
The movie begins with the story of H&H Hardware in Middlefield, Ohio, closing after the new Wal-Mart cuts too deeply into its business. It ends with an amped-up montage of communities that successfully kept Wal-Mart out.
In between, there's lots of talk about wrongdoings at Wal-Mart—from an executive strategy that requires managers to do more with less, to the managers who translate that into, for example, illegally changing punch cards (or so the interviewees say).
Wal-Mart's position (the company declined to speak on the record for Greenwald) is represented by snippets of CEO Lee Scott giving interviews to news media or rallying the Wal-Mart troops.
The company appears, by and large, to feel it has nothing—or next to nothing—to apologize for. If there are problems, those are aberrations. A few bad seeds, if you will. We've heard this before in the context of recent corporate malfeasance cases.
In the final analysis, people who have a hunch about Wal-Mart will love this piece of work, overlooking its loosey-goosey structure and the tabloid titles it slaps onscreen. Others will claim Greenwald isn't being fair and find ways to dismiss virtually all criticism of the store.
Ultimately, however, fairness rests with the viewer and his or her ability to see through smokescreens and find the real people—everyone from Wal-Mart executives to Chinese workers—involved in this unfolding story.
It's really a story about how Americans are essentially obsessed with making sure we have stuff, plenty of stuff. The cheaper we can get it, the better.
Greenwald argues that Wal-Mart has crossed way over the moral line in this quest to make us happy. Has it? Greenwald says yes. Wal-Mart says no. What do you say?
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: Not rated. Reviewer's Note: No graphic content of any kind.
Producer-Director: Robert Greenwald
Producers: Jim Gilliam, Devin Smith
The movie's official Web site is here. (You can find free screenings and buy the documentary on DVD at the site.)
Wal-Mart Documentary to Play in Houses of Faith, Other Organizations