Having established himself as the Upton Sinclair of cyber-age cinema, Robert Greenwald has a ready-made Internet audience waiting for “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price,” a scathing study of the retail behemoth (and alleged public enemy). But considering the size of the Wal-Mart consumer base and the indignant-bordering-on-virulent response already emanating from the company’s Arkansas headquarters, the limited theatrical release meant to kick-off the film’s DVD sales might take on a life of its own.
Having most recently tackled the oft-questioned origins of the Iraq war in “Uncovered: The War on Iraq” (2004) and taken a journalistic lash to Rupert Murdoch in “Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism” (2004), Greenwald has also established an unorthodox but increasingly popular marketing strategy — employing the Web, grassroots screenings and house parties to sell his films, in advance of any theatrical run.
Just as Greenwald has found his niche in the market, he’s also found, in the political documentary, the medium that seems most suited to his talents after a career of making features, TV movies and miniseries, as well as documentaries. He may never be a poet of cinema, but whatever Greenwald lacks in style he makes up for with a deluge of facts and figures and a populist feel that make his movies, this one included, accessible even to the most politically naive.
The nation’s largest retailer, with hundreds of billions in annual profits, Wal-Mart has long been assailed for paying less than a living wage, suppressing attempts at employee organizing (it closed at least one store where a union vote didn’t go its way) and offering a health-care plan so expensive that thousands of Wal-Mart “associates” (the company’s euphemistic term for employees) are on some form of public assistance.
Wal-Mart will undoubtedly argue most of Greenwald’s points, but the director has no shortage of ex-Wal-Mart employees testifying about scandalous company practices, and no end of statistics recounting what would appear to be an inherently unethical corporate ethos.
For all the film’s provocations and documentation, however, Greenwald never seems get to the heart of the matter: that it is the consumer who makes Wal-Mart powerful.
During a sequence concerning Wal-Mart’s use of undocumented aliens to clean its stores (something for which it was prosecuted), a “Daily Show” clip shows a female customer voicing amazement that Wal-Mart would ever do such a thing. Her response is met by host Jon Stewart’s patented sarcasm: “Lady, you just bought a sweatshirt for 29 cents!”
It’s a rare bit of humor, and a welcome stab at Wal-Mart’s chief accomplice, if that’s the term: The film castigates local governments for giving tax breaks to Wal-Mart at the same time their schools are closing, but ultimately it is the individual customer who has to take responsibility for where he or she shops. And Greenwald never points a finger at his audience.
He certainly points a few at Wal-Mart, and does it via several very clever stratagems. One is the use of Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott, whose statements about his company’s virtues are made to seem ludicrous in light of the narratives Greenwald erects around them.
The feeling of lament that informs the film is relieved, eventually, by a catalog of communities who fought and won campaigns against Wal-Mart. It’s never articulated as such, but most of Greenwald’s stories come out of so-called red states and from people who would ordinarily call themselves conservatives. When a merchant and Korean War vet starts talking about another American revolution — he saw his Cameron, Mo., grocery go out of business while the local Wal-Mart was getting tax subsidies — one has to take the Wal-Mart dilemma seriously.
It is, perhaps, no surprise that Greenwald got little response, much less cooperation, from Wal-Mart executives. But he has their attention now.