Home > Film, Politics, Reviews > Film Review: Wal-Mart: The High Cost of a Low Price

Film Review: Wal-Mart: The High Cost of a Low Price

Wal-Mart: The High Cost of a Low Price (2005; Directed by Robert Greenwald)

Eventually, you had to figure that the left-wing anti-corporate documentary genre was going to produce a film as genuinely weakly made, poorly argued and naively knee-jerk in its political notions as conservative opponents of the genre have long accused its products of being. That film, sadly, is this film.

Robert Greenwald lays out Wal-Mart’s myriad abuses with an effectiveness that is no less impressive for its one-sidedness, but then those abuses are hardly up for debate. Anyone who’s done even a bare minimum of research into the subject knows about Wal-Mart’s union-busting, their shabby payment and treatment of employees, their disregard for environmental and safety laws, the destructive effect their stores have on small businesses, the borderline slave-labour employed in their foreign plants, and much more. There’s plenty of evidence to show that Wal-Mart does lots of nasty things to turn a profit, but Greenwald’s film steadfastly refuses to trace the systemic vileness of these tactics beyond the profit motive of one solitary (if enormous) company.

Because the problems with Wal-Mart are merely microcosmic of the problems with American capitalism, problems that are increasingly coming home to roost in a time of economic crisis. Wal-Mart employs cheap overseas labour, but so do many other corporations. They pay low wages and employ illegal immigrant labour, but so do many other corporations. They are flippant about safety and the environment, but so are many other corporations. They ruthlessly game the system, but so do many other corporations. Their union-breaking tactics are more singular, but reflect a widespread American distrust of and distaste for organized labour that has been frothed up by the right for decades (and has a grain of truth or two to it, though perhaps not the grains that conservatives have inflated into historic sins).

The most succinct example of Greenwald’s failure of insight as a documentarian comes in the exploration of Wal-Mart’s failure to provide health coverage for their employees. This lack of concern is decried and several victims of the policy are trotted out to arouse our sympathy, but the larger point is missed entirely. Why should it be up to an employer to provide complete, necessary health coverage to most of their employees? As a Canadian, the alternative of universal health care seems obvious, and would efficiently remove the onus from corporations, who must factor employee health coverage into their profit margins and will thus always find it a tempting element to cut back in order to make it into the black (or ever further into the black, as is often the case). The entire American auto industry was at risk largely because of the benefits the car companies owe to their employees. With a working, fair system of socialized medicine in place (something similar but more far-reaching than the Affordable Care Act constantly maligned by conservatives), this is not an issue for Wal-Mart or for any other company.

Beyond its narrow lack of vision and glib willingness to blame every foible of Wal-Mart on pure, evil greed rather than on the crushing competitive pressures of an environment of unregulated commercial expansion, the production values of The High Cost of a Low Price are ridiculously cheap. The interviews are informative enough, but patronizing captions remind us of who’s talking every time they’re on screen. Beyond this irritation, there is Greenwald’s conclusion, an eye-rolling montage of communities that resisted Wal-Mart’s expansion (although at least a few of the ones listed now have Wal-Marts in them nonetheless), accompanied by laughable scrolling text bleating, “Victory!” A 12-year-old with a deft hand at PowerPoint would be embarrassed to put his name on such a graphical creation. And Greenwald’s tactic of freezing cheery Wal-Mart ads, washing the colours out to black-and-white, and playing ominous music as he flashes stats that contradict the happy messages is both cheesy and cliched. Technical values, it needs to be said, do matter, even in documentaries. The poorer they are, the less likely are viewers to be convinced by the film’s arguments.

Conclusion: Wal-Mart is terrible. So is this film.


Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

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