Wal-Mart is bad. Bingo, the entire film summed up in three words. That's cost saving right there. I've saved time and keyboard usage, and you've saved the cost of cinema admission and the time to read this review. Oh, you want more detail? Well, ok. I'll give you more, but don't expect Robert Greenwald’s film to.
Towards the final half hour of "Wal-Mart, the High Cost of Low Prices", an anti Wal-Mart activist performs some fairly typical American flag-gazing with a side-order of blubbing. But instead of crying about what a neat-o country she happens to live in, she is crying about betrayal. It's an effective image because it's universal and pitiable. If the film is anything to go by, the US government and the runaway reality of the American Dream have betrayed ordinary people like her, and Wal-Mart represents yet another step towards the chilling finale of a truly corporate country where everything is owned and run by just a select few, and for their benefit only.
For Wal-Mart to achieve what this film tells us it has takes people. Not just a few, not even a few hundred, but thousands. This is not a conspiracy, it's an ethos - and if Greenwald is accurate in his portrayal of the effects of this ethos, there is a very poorly surfaced road ahead, and America is driving around on bald tires. How can people betray their fellow workers the way they do in this film? How can there be so many people willing to spy on anyone attempting to start a union? How can there be so many people willing to lie and cheat and intimidate just because their employer tells them to? It's all about money of course, and according to Greenwald those dastards at Wal-Mart are paying people to do all these things. How do they justify this or defend themselves? We're never told.
We are shown corporate videos that Wal-Mart foists on it's employees warning them of the dangers of unionising. We're then told that in Germany, Wal-Mart companies DO have unions, because the companies (like Asda in the UK) are all bought 'as is' and already have them in place. How can Wal-Mart justify this? Yet again, we're never told. Instead, we get some Germans saying "That's terrible" and the film rolls on. This is the critical error repeated thoughout the film - that statistics and testimony are presented without context or rebuttal.
And the reason becomes clear - this film is essentially the closing address of the prosecution. There's no 'objection!' at a critical moment, nor is there any case for the defence. This might be because there isn't one to be heard, but that seems unlikely. It seems more likely that Greenwald either didn't seek out Wal-Mart for a response, or they did not feel required to give one (if this is the case, it's not mentioned). Either way it leaves the film on shaky ground. Whether we'd like to or not, how are we to believe this film given it's clear agenda? In this regard, it fails. It presents it's case, but if this were a court of law it would surely lose.
Where the film does succeed is in giving a voice to the people affected daily by corporations like Wal-Mart. Every single facet of Wal-Mart's wrongdoing is supported by personal testimony. It's emotional and revealing and at times compelling, but it's also just personal testimony. Ex-employees can always be found to spill the beans about their evil former employer, and although they may well be telling the truth, to hang your hat solely on their words leaves you in a tenuous position.
Another area in which the film fails is it's presentation. Editing is sloppy, much of the footage is of very poor quality and the sound is terrible. Often we are presented with a flurry of statistics and there's too much to absorb. Also, some of it seems out of context and confusing, yet is obviously important to Greenwald's arguments. It flashes up, and it's gone. What does it all mean? What are the sources? What about some comparisons with similar stores, or some of the 'good guys'?
Whether it is the intention of Greenwald to baffle us or demonstrate that he has a barrage of numbers to back his claims up is not clear. This is not a Wal-Mart apologist speaking, but arguments of this nature seem to be far clearer when they are presented with ideals of journalistic integrity in mind. It would have been interesting to see the reaction of Wal-Mart to this film, but something tells me they really aren't going to be troubled by it, which is a shame.
This film would probably appeal to people who have already decided that Wal-Mart is wicked. There's plenty here to get started with, and perhaps that's the films true goal - to galvanise. Certainly the upbeat ending sends a message that Wal-Mart, and the corporate spill that is engulfing countries, can be stopped. All it takes is people power and organisation. It's a stirring enough message, and a memorable one. But does this mean that the tide is turning?
It's impossible to make any firm conclusions about Wal-Mart based solely on this film. South Park did it all so much better by attacking the positions of both sides, rather than this single-minded approach. The material and the testimonies would probably have worked better as a book along the lines of Fast Food Nation, but what we're left with is a lot of shouting and a rallying call, but little supportable substance.