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Here’s the bad news: Noam Chomsky in The Corporation.

Pathologically Powerful
By Ann Morrow

The Corporation
Directed by Jennifer Abbott and Mark Achbar

You can’t own the rain, can you? Well, actually, you can—if you’re a powerful corporation operating in a Third World country. That’s just one of the many startling factual scenarios presented in The Corporation, a must-see documentary on the rise and near-omnipotence of corporate entities in today’s society. Cowritten by constitutional-law scholar Joel Bakan and based on his book, The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, the film is a hard-hitting, meticulously researched indictment of “the dominant institution of our time.”

The destructive force of corporate power dismays even some CEOs. Among the film’s roster of candid talking heads are captains of industry such as Ray Anderson, chairman and CEO of Interface, the world’s largest manufacturer of commercial carpeting. Referring to his company and others like it as “plunderers,” the soft-spoken Anderson calmly describes how “every living system in the biosphere is in decline” as a result of heedless business practices. “Someday guys like me will be going to jail,” he admits. These practices are illustrated with sometimes shocking news footage and interviews with the offending parties, such as the affable CEO of Monsanto, creator of DDT, BGH, and other synthetic-chemical nightmares.

Although the film is undisguisedly biased, its attempts to give the other side equal time only strengthen its central thesis: that the legal mandate of corporations to maximize short-term profits to the exclusion of all other considerations is a sickness that victimizes individuals, society, and the environment.

The film starts out with a thorough but fast-paced primer on what corporations are and how they came to their current status of global power brokers. Before the Civil War, we learn, incorporations of individuals to achieve a desired goal, such as building a bridge, were limited by law. That changed in 1886, when the Supreme Court decided to legally classify corporations as persons, entitling them to the same constitutional rights as private citizens. But as one business analyst points out, these “persons” are without moral conscience. The film’s grimly witty and highly effective format is to evaluate “the corporation” like a patient, according to the mental-health criteria of the World Health Organization. The diagnosis is a resounding “pathological.” Under the category of Consideration for Others, for example, the evidence includes layoffs, union busting, and sweatshops.

Among the experts who talk directly to the camera are Milton Friedman, Noam Chomsky, business guru Peter Drucker, and Michael Moore. Providing insight as both a beneficiary of corporate power and as a critic of it, Moore is unusually objective. The problem with the corporate profit motive, he summarizes, “is that there’s no such thing as enough.”

If the hook to Moore’s documentaries is populist comedy, than perhaps The Corporation can be viewed as a cerebral horror film. Fluidly constructed with an escalating pace (set to a doomy yet catchy techno soundtrack), the film becomes increasingly chilling. Among the sequences are the firing of two investigative reporters for Fox News who refused to lie about the cancer risks of BGH; the hanging of anti-
corporate activists in Nigeria; and advertising campaigns of intense psychological pressure (referred to as “perception management”) intended to turn the average American into an automaton whose primary purpose is the acquisition of consumer goods (a campaign that encompasses the Orwellian practice of real-life product placement). One advertising analyst says that comparing the ads of yesteryear to those of today is like “comparing a BB gun to a smart bomb.”

Yet despite its convincing slant that corporate power has reached almost totalitarian proportions, the film ends on a note of hope by examining a few pockets of resistance. In the subsistence-level South American village where the water supply was privatized to the extant that villagers were charged for collecting rainwater in a bucket, the people successfully revolted, although at the cost of one death and 175 injuries inflicted by government forces. For us Americans, there’s this piece of advice from an ordinary citizen at a town meeting: If you don’t like what the corporation is selling, “you don’t have to buy it.”

The Neverending Story

Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry
Directed by George Butler

The success of Michael
Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 certainly made this a peculiar moviegoing summer. Documentaries about Fox News, Al-Jazeera, evil corporations and the so-called “real” rationale behind the Iraq war have turned up in movie theaters, living rooms and, occasionally, both. The left has finally found a successful media format: After years of dreaming of staging a talk-radio coup d’etat, liberals have conquered the multiplex instead.

Which brings us to this informative extended campaign commercial for John Kerry. Going Upriver is the story of Kerry and his Vietnam War experiences, from his strict upbringing and Kennedy-era enthusiasm for spreading democracy with bullets, to his eventual disillusionment and involvement with Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

We learn that Kerry was always enthusiastic and ambitious, whether it was lacrosse or debating. As with many of Kerry’s generation, John F. Kennedy was a compelling role model; to Kerry, JFK’s call to service was indeed a kind of higher calling. When the Yale grad was told that he was the type of leader needed to serve in Vietnam, Kerry did not hesitate to go.

And yet, because the film relies only on archival footage of Kerry and contemporary interviews with friends, colleagues and fellow soldiers, the man himself remains elusive. How did this passionate kid become the reserved U.S. Senator from Massachusetts?

The essential futility and cruelty of the Vietnam “experience” comes through with startling clarity, however. Filmgoers who rely on phony cinematic dramas like Apocalypse Now or Platoon for their knowledge of Vietnam would do well to check out Going Upriver. For those swayed by the lies of Swift Boat buffoons: John Kerry served honorably. And his transformation into an antiwar activist was equally genuine—the film gets this just right.

Perhaps the most unhappy (and probably unintended) realization audiences watching Going Upriver may take away is that the endless acrimony and bitter divisions of the Vietnam War will last as long as the Vietnam generation. The fact that almost every U.S. government rationale for the war turned out to be a lie hasn’t made a bit of difference. (Southeast Asia, after all, is not exactly awash in Communists.) Kerry and his fellow antiwar vets came to believe the war was a mistake, but many vets didn’t accept that conclusion. And, to judge from the venomous Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, they still haven’t. And so the long war of John Kerry, and many, many more, continues.

—Shawn Stone

Sleeping With the Fishes

Shark Tale
Directed by Vicky Jenson

With Shark Tale coming so closely on the heels of Finding Nemo, one can’t help but wonder, what’s with the fish? When did kids become so enamored of the little, and sometimes not so little, gill-breathing things, or, for that matter, when did writers and producers see dollar signs at the idea?

In a, er, seashell, the plot is simple: Oscar (Will Smith) works at a fish wash (think car wash, only underwater) but dreams of living at the top of the reef. Be yourself, wisely advises coworker Angie (Renée Zellweger), who secretly doodles “Oscar and Angie” all over her message pad. Trouble is, as much as Oscar is liked by nearly everybody in the reef, he has bought into the concept, hook, line and sinker, that being somebody means wealth and success. Toward that end, he has asked for numerous salary advances from his boss, Sykes (Martin Scorsese), who suddenly needs payback when the ruthless Don Lino (Robert De Niro) demands protection money. Don Lino is not without a heart; in fact, he’s a family man determined to keep his business, which is the family, in the family. But while his older son is a ruthless chip off the old block, young Lenny (Jack Black) can’t stand to see anybody suffer and, by the way, is a vegetarian. Oscar’s and Lenny’s paths collide, literally, when Oscar is about to be whacked for failure to pay up, and, in a freak accident, Lenny’s older brother dies. Seizing the chance that only a cinematic mistaken identity can provide, Oscar becomes an overnight “shark slayer,” while Lenny goes into hiding, fearful that his father will never forgive him for his brother’s death.

What sounds like too much is actually a cohesive plot with lots of vibrant sight gags (including shrimp who owe a debt to Shrek’s Gingerbread Man) and superb vocal talent. Renée Zellweger, with her honey-grained voice, was made to intone loving words of encouragement in voiceover. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Angelina Jolie, playing an aquatic femme fatale appropriately named Lola, is equal parts va-va-voom and yikes! Smith, of course, is enormously appealing, and Black somehow gives us adorable minus the nausea factor.

There’s been much written about how some Italian-American groups are concerned about the movie’s depiction of Italian-American fish as all belonging to the mafia. I have seen nothing from Jamaican-American groups concerned about the movie’s depiction of Rastafarian jellyfish as indicative of violent tendencies and rampant drug use among Rastafarians. I have seen nothing from Jewish-American groups concerned that the flatulence of one fish character casts some sort of pall over all Jews. I could continue, but you get the point. Shark Tale uses its gangster-film references, including the casting of De Niro and Scorsese, as a knowing joke, and it is a good one.

Shark Tale relies not just on classic movie lore for humor; it borrows heavily on those kid-movie chestnuts that promote individualism and all that. And yet, this story, written by Rob Letterman and Michael J. Wilson, doesn’t let our hero learn valuable lessons while at the same time retaining all the baubles. You’ve got to like the maverick approach of a hero who finds ultimate satisfaction being a manager at the fish wash.

—Laura Leon

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