The conflicts between citizens and business interests have been addressed in film at least since the 1920s, a time when Fritz Lang’s classic silent movie Metropolis was released. The 1927 science-fiction drama presented a dystopian future in which wealthy oligarchs live a peaceful life of beauty and ease; in pristine, futuristic cities while the lowly majority labour in grim, underground factories. The film tells the story of the son of a wealthy factory owner who, inspired by an idealistic schoolteacher, renounces his exalted position and becomes a reformer, determined to improve the lot of the working class. Even buried in the fanciful storyline and elaborate set design full of magical robots and unthought-of technological advances, the egalitarian message is clear and forceful.
Since then, even mainstream feature films have occasionally taken the side of labour or criticised corporate greed or abuse. For example, Charlie Chaplin offered comic but genuine sympathy for beleaguered factory workers in Modern Times, his last official silent film. In 1941, Hollywood released How Green Was My Valley, adapted from the book by Welsh novelist and playwright Richard Llewellyn, which followed the struggles of a family in an early 20th-century mining town, including exploitation by the mine’s owners. Directed by John Ford, a well-established director of a long line of popular westerns and featuring a prominent cast, the film was a critical success and won five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director.
Despite the pressure placed on Hollywood artists by Senator McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Commission, which was inclined to be suspicious of pro-labour union or anti-capitalist material, the 1950s produced some work that strongly defended workers and made them central protagonists. An outstanding example is the 1954 drama Salt of the Earth, scripted by award-winning writer Michael Wilson, best known for Lawrence of Arabia. It presented a sympathetic, character-driven account, based on actual events, of a strike at a zinc mine in New Mexico. The film is noteworthy for its acknowledgement, unusual at the time, of racial discrimination in the workplace, as well as its positive portrayal of women’s place in the labour struggle. It is also a film in which a significant proportion of the crew were blacklisted at the time and credited using a pseudonym, including the director, screenwriter, producer, and musical composer, as well as lead actress Rosaura Revueltas, who was later blacklisted as a result of appearing in the film. The 1950s also produced British satire I’m All Right, Jack, a comedy about a business owner attempting to use a worker strike to drive up prices; and Hollywood musical The Pajama Game, superficially a light musical comedy, but one which deals with both labour-management conflicts and corporate corruption.
The category picks up and breaks new ground in the 1970s. Documentarian Barbara Kopple produced Harlan County U.S.A., which took the 1976 Oscar for Best Documentary with its depiction of the 13th-month Kentucky coal miners’ strike in the summer of 1973, and the often harsh and violent response of the company which employed them. Three years later, veteran Hollywood director Martin Ritt set a new standard with the popular drama Norma Rae, a passionate tale of union activity against a corrupt and exploitive textile mill which refused to improve unsafe working conditions. Although based on real events and people, the names were altered and the plot fictionalised to protect the identity of the union activists. Sally Field’s performance in the title role earned her a Best Actress award from Cannes and the Oscar and Golden Globe in that category, finally elevating her out of the rut of lightweight comedies that defined her early career. The film enjoyed tremendous popularity and made the term ‘Norma Rae’ something of a catchphrase, a metaphor – whether sincere or sarcastic – for anyone supporting workers’ rights.
As corporations increased in size and influence, new and more significant concerns emerged, and relevant films became more extensive in scope, beginning in the 1980s. In 1983, Silkwood achieved a perfect storm in the combination of acclaimed director Mike Nichols (The Graduate, The Birdcage, Catch-22), a script by talented writer Nora Ephron, and a young Meryl Streep in the title role, in a dramatisation of the story of Karen Silkwood, an ill-fated employee who reported on hazardous practices in the nuclear power plant where she worked, an action that may have cost her life. The very popular film not only increased awareness of well-hidden corporate wrongdoing but it also introduced the concept, and the potential value, of employee whistleblowers to the general public. Silkwood’s situation, and the publicity the film brought to it, may have also slightly shifted the focus from straightforward employee demands for equitable income or workplace safety, to the negative impact large corporations may have on the community at large, and the considerable privilege and license – and ability to cover up wrongdoing – they tend to enjoy.
The 1980s were significant for introducing the documentaries of Michael Moore with his first release, Roger and Me. Bringing an element of humour, inventiveness, and entertainment value that had seldom been found in documentaries, Roger and Me examined the employment policies of General Motors through the mildly comical device of having on-screen narrator Michael Moore attempt, and repeatedly fail, to meet in person with the company’s CEO, Roger Smith. In the process, the film reveals, in Moore’s casual, comical style, the reasons behind General Motors’ employment and layoff policies and the real level of financial power a company of this size actually holds, as it also displays the personal devastation their most recent plant closure has had on former Michigan auto plant workers.
Moore set the stage for a new generation of documentaries, leading to reformist docs that were as entertaining as they were informative, such as the Noam Chomsky platform Manufacturing Consent, which questioned the impact of profit on news reporting; Taken For A Ride, which examined the role of automobile companies in the decline of public transit; or The Fight in the Fields, the 1997 biography of agricultural labour organiser Cesar Chavez.
This brings us to the 21st century and a selection of noteworthy films in this category over the past 22 years.
The best anti-corporate films of the 21st century
Where corporate critique on film is concerned, the era began on time. It was the year Erin Brockovich was released, a wildly popular film with the equally popular Julia Roberts in the title role (for which she won the Best Actress Oscar, BAFTA, Golden Globe, and SAG Awards, among others). A creatively dramatised version of actual events, the film portrays the work of endearingly lowbrow Erin Brockovich-Ellis in helping a law firm successfully sue Pacific Gas and Electric Company for the enormous harm caused by their irresponsible manner of dealing with toxic waste. The film makes excellent use of both pathos and comedy to make the rather chilling story of corporate indifference palatable, while Roberts provides the perennially popular underdog character who triumphs over a seemingly unbeatable enemy in the form of an uncaring, endlessly wealthy business.
The story is, of course, all the more upbeat because the victory was genuine: the 1996 class action suit overcame massive, decades-long cover-ups and an intimidating array of lawyers to win over $300 million for residents injured by the company’s practices, as well as require the company to restore the area they’d polluted, and cease using carcinogenic chemicals.
2000 was also the year Ken Loach released Bread and Roses, a provocative drama involving romantic and family sub-plots within a political plotline, starring Adrien Brody as a union representative trying to help janitorial workers organise in the face of intimidation from company management. The film also delves into the question of undocumented immigrants working in the US and how their willingness to accept substandard wages and employment circumstances is gladly exploited by employers. The movie is a bit less polished and more openly didactic than some of Loach’s later work but it remains well done and enjoyable. The characters are real and sympathetic, particularly lead actress Pilar Padilla as an idealistic janitor struggling to deal with terrible working conditions while keeping her family financially afloat. The film brings across, with great clarity, the real-life fears, risks, and pressures endured by these undervalued workers.
A great philosophical breakthrough in the discussion of business vs public interests came with the publication of Joel Bakan’s book, The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, a bestseller translated into over 20 languages. Bakan, a Canadian professor of law and former Rhodes scholar, describes the evolution of the corporation into its current form, addressing the end result using an interesting conceit. Allowing for the legal definition of a corporation as a ‘person’, Bakan concludes that, if corporations were people, they would be sociopaths since their sole mandate is, as the author puts it, “To pursue, relentlessly and without exception, its own self-interest, regardless of the often harmful consequences it might cause to others.” Starting from this premise, Bakan discussed how the growing power of corporations – and their minimal and diminishing accountability – is responsible for many of the world’s most intractable problems.
In 2003, the book was adapted into a documentary, The Corporation, scripted by Bakan himself in partnership with the talented directing team of Jennifer Abbott and Mark Achbar. The resulting film is a truly exceptional work, streamlining the data gathered by Bakan without losing sight of the essential points, and making creative use of film techniques and visuals to enhance or clarify explanations. Experts from various fields are brought in to expand on critical issues, relevant clips from news reports and even purely decorative or metaphorical imagery illustrate central facts, and low-key narration leads the viewer through it all. The film is not only informative but engaging and fun, making the best possible use of the documentary format to convey vital information about corporate abuse of power and the growing influence of what Bakan calls “the dominant institution of our time” – the corporation.
The same year, the documentary No Logo was released, having been adapted from journalist Naomi Klein’s book of the same name. The theme is comparatively radical, beginning with the proposition that corporations, as Klein writes, “Have grown so big they have superseded government,” and focusing not just on the dangers of corporate power, but on how it might be invalidated or overthrown. No Logo examines the emergence of opposition to the corporation, what forms this opposition has taken, and what approach might be most effective in establishing “a genuine alternative to corporate rule.”
The film is directed by Sut Jhally, a longtime maker of films dealing with political and social activism. It begins by introducing the way in which corporate influence on the economy and the culture simply bypasses traditional forms of government control before moving on to the possible ways the public can subvert it. The film is lively and fast-paced despite its heavy load of information and its virtually nonstop narration. Using pop-culture imagery and company logos, advertisements, and other promotional material to provide the visuals to demonstrate the devious ways corporate branding win over consumers, sometimes by co-opting society’s best ideas, even, ironically, its revolutionary or anti-capitalist ideas (the film references, for example, Apple Computer’s use of progressive heroes, such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, in their advertising). The overview of the rise of corporations, and their efforts to brand and own anything and everything, concludes with a significant breakthrough: the establishment of the first entirely corporate-founded and corporate-run town: Celebration, Florida, which is designed, owned, and run (as a strictly enforced monopoly) by the Disney Corporation.
Having established the serious consequences of losing any form of ‘the commons’ as corporations privatise or insert themselves into traditionally public spaces and public services, their ability to gain de facto control over cultural content, and their ability to disrupt any form of job security or workers’ rights (Nike’s worldwide search for a sufficiently cheap and compliant labour force described as a case in point), the film finally moves on to the subject of fighting back.
Activism takes up the second half of the book on which the film is based, examining the evolution of ‘culture jamming’ and disruption of advertising content; the modest feminist uprising against ‘marketplace feminism’; speculation that disaffected and misused temporary workers are a “true breeding ground of the anti-corporate backlash”, citing temp newsletters and sites which “tap a seemingly bottomless well of worker resentment”; and examples of low-level workers hacking Microsoft’s computers in retribution.
Unfortunately, activism is covered only in the final ten minutes of the film; but it is, at least, a tightly packed ten minutes. We are shown various forms of protest and legal disruption that have been used against large corporations, from boycotts to ‘adjusting’ and ‘billboard liberation’, to simply publicising scandalous facts about the company’s production standards and labour ethics. It recommends, as author Naomi Klein writes in her book’s conclusion, “A resistance, both high-tech and grassroots… that is as global, and as capable of coordinated action, as the multinational corporations it seeks to subvert”. Meanwhile, the narrator warns of the difficulties connected to protesting major corporations, including lack of direct access, the unofficial use of police forces to protect business interests, and the often effective campaign to brand corporations as benefactors.
Happily, at only 42 minutes long, No Logo is perfect for screenings at select meetings and gatherings.
Biting satire reached a new level in 2005 with the release of Jason Reitman’s dark comedy/drama, Thank You For Smoking. Aaron Eckhart plays the cheerfully amoral Nick Naylor, an immensely talented lobbyist and spin doctor for the cigarette industry. The film follows Nick through a series of challenges as he expertly and cleverly defends his employer against charges that tobacco is unhealthy and efforts to restrict cigarette sales or require warning labels. The film succeeds by making it Nick’s story, not only refusing to take the high ground in the ethical swamp that is his natural habitat but allowing Nick to be the plausible hero, facing moral challenges head-on and encountering only temporary setbacks. The satire is never straightforward, even when Nick meets with his friends and colleagues, spokespeople for alcohol manufacturers and gun retailers, to laughingly debate whose business is the most deadly and, therefore, hardest to promote. Seeing things ironically, from the perspective of a corporate insider, actually makes the point better than a more earnest approach might manage, in combination with the film’s relentlessly cynical humour.
The rise and fall of Enron, a US-based oil, gas, paper, and communications company, is a rare case of a corporation bringing about its own demise without any help from either government or the public, but its destruction also reveals a great deal of value about business fraud and corruption, secret political alliances, and how the supposedly free market can be manipulated. The 2005 documentary film Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room tells the story of Enron, its rise to become the seventh-largest corporation in the US, and its abrupt and unexpected fall into bankruptcy and ruin, followed by investigations for various forms of fraud, and multiple lawsuits.
The director is Alex Gibney, an acclaimed documentarian since 1980 who also wrote the screenplay. The film was nominated for 14 awards, including the Oscar and Sundance Grand Jury Prize, in the documentary category. While the subject matter is often dense and complex, Gibney manages to make it accessible, first by keeping the data organised and second by judicious use of visuals to keep issues clear, aided by a lively soundtrack of mid-20th-century music. There is even the occasional touch of suspense, as when the main body of the film is introduced by a mysterious suicide, explained in the course of the first act.
The overview of the Enron scandal examines not only its unconventional and unethical business practices, but also the entertainingly peculiar personalities and hyperconfident attitudes of the CEOs. It explores what one former member describes as the “macho culture” of the company and how their thinking led inevitably to both Enron’s apparent success and its ultimate failure. The process is engagingly illustrated by clips from the executives’ past, and from their public activities during Enron’s heyday. In fact, it is the rather barbed study of the Enron founders’ psyches that provides a good part of the film’s entertainment.
A new Michael Moore documentary appeared in 2009, which got to the heart of the matter: Capitalism: A Love Story, using Moore’s typically screwball approach to a very serious subject. Rather than target particular wrongs from any specific business, this film goes after the system itself. Why a love story? Because Moore presents the current state of American capitalism as the tragic decline of a formerly workable system, one that had provided most Americans with financial security, steady jobs, and public services, into a monstrous version of its former self. Moore fondly recalls the mid-20th century America which allowed a comfortable living for the majority of single-income households, and it follows the gradual development of an economic system which drastically cut taxes for the very wealthy, destroyed labour unions, consolidated corporate power, and steadily diminished income and job security for the great majority.
The film veers away from its comical tone as it portrays the worst extremes of this ongoing trend, including a planned epidemic of house foreclosures. It looks at the use of public services – such as prisons and juvenile homes – as money-making ventures. The movie also focuses on banking practices designed to bankrupt families and turn their money over to financial institutions. Elsewhere, Moore looks at the minor but grim details such as Wal Mart’s so-called ‘dead peasants’ policies, which profited from the deaths of low-level employees. The end result, as demonstrated by a wide and entertaining variety of interviews and visuals, is an unprecedented gap between the wealthy few and the increasingly poor and vulnerable general population. The filmmaker brings home the impact of these changes on the average person through intimate and heart-rending footage of low-income communities suffering the consequences.
Moore regains his sense of humour during the final act, which discusses ways to take action and restore fairness and legitimacy to an increasingly predatory system. Using flashbacks of 20th century history to provide examples, the film offers possible options, embellished by rather slapstick scenes of the director haggling with bankers, or placing crime scene tape around financial institutions. The conclusion may be overly optimistic, given the facts already presented throughout the film, but it is also inspiring and not without some helpful information and perspective. Ending on a whimsical note more in keeping with Moore’s work, he adds encouraging one-line footnotes to the final credits, which are playfully accompanied by an excellent swing jazz version of The Internationale.
The same year, a startling documentary, The Shock Doctrine, was released, based directly on Naomi Klein’s imposing book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, and co-directed by Michael Winterbottom and film and music video director Mat Whitecross. There is also a 2007 six-minute short with the same title, adapted from Klein’s book by BAFTA- and Oscar-winning director Alfonso Cuarón
The seemingly unpromising subject is the history and development of an economic philosophy commonly known as the ‘Chicago school of economics’, first popularised by neoliberal economist Milton Friedman. This school of thought supports unregulated free enterprise and privatisation to the extent that almost seems like parody; however, it is not only real but growing in popularity among the wealthy and powerful. What makes the film’s portrayal striking is its focus on one key point in this philosophy: the idea that placing the wealthy in a firm position of power (where they are believed to naturally belong) is often easiest to accomplish following a disaster of some kind – the ‘shock doctrine’ of the title.
The film follows the original material closely but manages to simplify and clarify the data, paring it down to its horrifying essentials, keeping it lively with well-chosen visuals and background footage. The rather ambitious story scans through the decades, beginning with the origins of the shock doctrine in psychiatric medicine, and its adoption by security agencies such as the CIA for interrogation, before moving on to its evolution into a weapon against the comparatively poor. The film provides multiple examples of corporations exploiting natural disasters, military attacks, and other chaotic situations in order to co-opt, privatise, and take control of public and private resources more efficiently than would be permitted under normal circumstances. One thoroughly covered example is that of the highly destructive Hurricane Katrina, which struck the city of New Orleans in 2005. Immediately following the disaster, corporate interests rapidly moved in, quickly and with almost no opposition privatising even well established public services, such as schools, and making a significant profit in the aftermath.
What emerges is, in a sense, a classic B-movie monster, one which demands power and which feeds on the trauma and loss of the hapless population. The film stops short of using the tropes of a conventional horror movie, mostly allowing the subject matter to speak for itself, but still, it’s not a film to watch alone in the dark.
Even The Rain (original title Tambien la Lluvia) is a drama whose plot revolves around one of the most extreme examples of corporate overreach: the privatisation of water. Award-winning Spanish director Iciar Bollain does fantastic work with a script by screenwriter Paul Laverty (I, Daniel Blake; Sorry We Missed You), which dramatises real events in a film-within-a-film that is engrossing from start to finish.
Set in Bolivia – where it is filmed on location – the story begins with a film crew shooting a drama about the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the area, a sub-plot which serves as a compelling parallel to the main storyline. While filming in the city of Cochabamba, the crew encounter a local uprising of the residents. An international corporation, with the reluctant cooperation of the local government, are planning to completely privatise and control the water supply. The film crew are distracted from their work, and the film gradually turns its focus to the conflict, following the efforts of local farmers, clergy, students, businessmen, and native Bolivians to preserve their water rights, portraying their work and their private lives with beauty and compassion. Gael Garcia Bernal is especially effective in the central role as the director leading the Columbus film crew, well supported by amateur actors drawn from the community.
The essential story follows real-life events closely. The script is based on the 1999-2000 corporate takeover and privatisation of Cochabamba’s water supply, which was enthusiastically protested by the residents, including a general strike, until the situation was reversed a year later. The film’s title, the phrase ‘even the rain’, refers to the level of control the corporation held: new regulations appeared to prohibit even the gathering of rainfall in barrels used to irrigate crops, as local farmers were accustomed to do. The film presents a clear, sympathetic, and well-crafted dramatisation of a highly significant event, one which is repeated, to a lesser degree, in communities around the world.
2010 also marked the release of Inside Job, a documentary which dissects and explains the 2008 global financial crisis. It successfully takes a dry and impossibly complex combination of causes and contributing factors and makes it not only understandable but interesting and relatable. The role of financial institutions, partnered with corporate interests, in causing an epidemic of bankruptcy, home foreclosures, job loss, and sudden insolvency that defined the crisis is made clear, as is the simultaneous enrichment of the already wealthy. The fraud investigations which followed are also covered.
Inside Job is a fast-paced film with high production values, featuring actor Matt Damon as the narrator, and including commentary and interviews with a host of experts, in several fields and taking varying positions on financial regulation. Questionable motives and conflicts of interest are not belaboured, simply noted in brief subtitles or in the on-screen identification of the speaker, letting the audience know who the individual is serving and how he came to benefit. With the help of well-chosen visual aids and background video, the film breaks down the math and simply, but with considerable impact, explains the multi-layered process of deregulation, changes in financial law, and simple fraud and duplicity which led to the crisis that caused so many to lose their homes or their livelihoods. It explains thoroughly and understandably why a bank might actually choose to sell homes or offer loans they know will be defaulted on – how new approaches to banking make foreclosure profitable to banks or investors, even while it creates disaster for the general public.
The film also describes how and why efforts to prevent such disaster were forestalled in the US – and by whom – complete with clips of courtroom proceedings and government testimony. The final act leads the viewer through the financial collapse and period of instability that followed and the people who were complicit in the disaster in a way that is accessible to the layman. The questionable bailout of the agencies responsible, and the lack of real consequences for the main culprits, are made particularly clear and are outlined in detail.
The final scenes, an epilogue of sorts, are not optimistic, describing the dire long-term consequences at the level of the ordinary citizen and the discouraging reasons that, failing significant systemic change, financial corruption and drastic income inequality are unlikely to improve.
The year after Inside Job was released, the same situation was captured in a more entertaining and palatable dramatised form. The global financial crisis, and the people behind it, are presented as a feature film, Too Big To Fail, with an impressive ensemble cast including James Woods, William Hurt, and Paul Giamatti.
The made-for-television film was directed by Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential, 8 Mile), and adapted from the book of the same title by US journalist Andrew Sorkin. It is a more accessible and more entertaining way to become acquainted with the disaster and the people involved.
The Swiss documentary Bottled Life: Nestle’s Business With Water is essentially an exposé dealing with the Nestle corporation’s controversial plans to access the rights to freshwater worldwide in a bid to bottle and market it. The high quality, well-made documentary, written, produced, and directed by Urs Schnell, gives a detailed summary of Nestle’s determined efforts to make clean water a commodity, one which they dominate, providing footage of the Nestle pumping stations and bottling plants which are proliferating globally.
To explain the dispute and give context, the film juxtaposes the public statements of Nestle CEO Peter Brabeck, and of other supporters of Nestle’s work, with those of opponents, who object to Nestle’s plan for many reasons, relating to environmental concerns, human rights, corporate power, or poverty. The film crew responds to Nestle’s claim of benevolence and public service with footage of a refugee camp supposedly provided with water by the company. It reveals the extent of its plans with an intimate look at one of the small towns Nestle has chosen as bottling sites. An array of prestigious experts and activists supplement the narrative.
Bottled Life goes into considerable depth on the civil, financial, and environmental consequences of the corporate control of water, as well as the legal and humanitarian issues it raises. It is an informative and entertaining contribution.
The same year, A Dark Truth was released, described over the final credits as “a dramatic interpretation of true events”. Names have been changed, but the essential details are purported to be accurate, and the dialogue to be based on recorded conversations and government records. Veteran B-movie maker Damien Lee directs an ensemble cast starring Andy Garcia and Forest Whitaker in a dramatisation of a South American village massacre, the multi-national corporation behind it, and the whistleblower who brings it to the public’s attention.
Once again, the subject is water rights and the takeover of a local water supply by a corporate entity. Although well-intentioned, the film is woefully lacking as a drama, earning a critical rating of only 8% on Rotten Tomatoes; it would be watched primarily as light entertainment combined with an effortless introduction to the real-life issues and concerns involved in water privatisation.
The title of Greedy Lying Bastards leaves no doubt that it will take an accusatory tone, and it doesn’t disappoint. The film gives a lively overview of the problem of global warming and the reasons it has not been effectively addressed.
The account begins with a moving presentation of the real human impact of climate change, such as informal interviews with people who have lost their homes due to the increase in wildfires. It also looks at farmers who are struggling to produce crops despite droughts and abnormally high temperatures; northern villages forced to relocate en masse; and coastal regions suffering from drastic changes in weather involving tidal waves, severe erosion, and flooding.
The film covers the warnings regarding man-made climate change, beginning in the 1950s, and the probable causes of the problem. It then carries on to its central theme: the reasons why these warnings have not been taken seriously and addressed. It is no surprise that the villain is identified as the film’s title characters: the ‘greedy lying bastards’ who run or represent businesses whose profits would diminish if climate change action were taken. Through footage of court testimony and public relations statements, past and present, the film demonstrates the measures corporations have taken to escape accusations of harming the environment in a bid to escape pressure to change their policies.
The content of the film is often as hyperbolic as its title. A great deal of time is spent on affecting footage of extreme weather events or survivors of natural disasters. The approach is also largely emotional, and the trouble is not always taken to confirm facts and present sources. Nevertheless, it is an effective, high quality, and watchable introduction to climate change and its unavoidable links to corporate practices.
The two-man comedy team known as The Yes Men are variously described as ‘prankster activists’ and ‘anti-corporate satirists’, among other things. Since the 1990s, the team has used a combination of performance art and improvisational comedy to boldly take their satiric statements into real-world situations, disguising themselves as members of the very group they are lampooning. They became well known in 2003, a time when they crashed various international conferences by impersonating members of the World Trade Organisation — an adventure they captured on film. Later, in 2014, the release of their third film, The Yes Men Are Revolting, focused on the troupe’s comical barrage on corporate responsibility for environmental damage. The team takes periodic serious moments – enhanced by location footage and animated visuals – to explain the seriousness of the climate change issue before moving on to their primary duty: providing surreal and merciless satire at the expense of big business and its enablers.
The film opens with an elaborate demonstration, supposedly a test run of high-tech, portable ‘survival pods’ which would allow humans to endure extreme weather changes, the event concluding with the two directors being arrested. The story moves on through hoaxes, bizarre public demonstrations, occasional arrests and lawsuits, and the news coverage that sometimes results from the team’s antics. It’s more than clear that the Yes Men and their assistants are deadly serious about climate change and the corporate influencers that block solutions. Their farcical but carefully devised demonstrations serve to amplify their point rather than distract from it. The use of comedy as an effective weapon and teaching tool makes for a fun, enjoyable, but also instructive and inspiring documentary.
Adam McKay’s The Big Short finds a truly entertaining way to explain the early-2000s US mortgage crisis and resulting economic collapse. Focusing on a small group of minor players and turning the account into a combination of suspense stories and pitch-black comedy – which still manages to skewer the institutions responsible for the disaster – McKay pushed the genre into new realms.
Christian Bale leads the ensemble cast as an eccentric hedge fund manager and financial mastermind, and Steve Carrell is excellent as a banker and the lone voice of professional ethics. Inventive and amusing film techniques are used to clarify, to the financially uninformed majority, what is happening at the investment level without interrupting the flow of the story. In fact, the film is so successful as a drama that, when the unethical investors succeed in making their fortune as planned, it is startling to be suddenly reminded that they did so by cheating and impoverishing countless families. The film is fun, informative, and merciless toward the huge, ‘too-big-to-fail’ companies that caused the widespread havoc and suffered virtually no consequences for it.
The documentary Dark Money deals with the political side of corporate power, with an in-depth examination of political donations and their effect on governmental policy and lawmaking, specifically in the US. The film begins with an outline of the gradual change in American campaign donation law over recent years, leading to a situation in which there are few limits on donation amount – and where disclosure of donation sources, domestic or foreign – can easily be avoided. This leads to a situation that opponents in public office refer to as “legalised bribery” by “American oligarchs”. Some attention is given to the game-changing passing of the law known as Citizens United, which eliminated most former restrictions on donations to political candidates.
The focus is turned primarily on the state of Montana, the US state which has most persistently opposed the trend toward large, anonymous political donations and business influence on policy. The concept, and the dangerous impact on government and legislation, is easier to follow at the small-scale, local level, and the film, while slow-paced and extremely detailed, makes the pertinent facts and the threat to effective democracy crystal clear.
Another 2018 film worth mentioning is Radium Girls, a low-budget period drama based on the 1927 class-action lawsuit against the US Radium Corporation. The all-female staff who applied luminous paint to watches became severely ill or disabled, many of them fatally, from exposure to radiation in the paint. The film gives a colourful portrayal of the women’s working conditions, the company’s attempts to cover up their negligence, and the court case itself.
The increasingly common corporate practice of using shell companies as a way to avoid taxation, hide income, or anonymise spending or ownership is addressed in The Laundromat, a sprightly, cynical, reality-based comedy/drama from Steven Soderbergh. It is based on the book Secrecy World by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jake Bernstein, a detailed account of the information revealed in the notorious Panama Papers, described by former US president Obama as “the biggest data leak in history”.
The millions of documents, leaked in 2016 by a still anonymous source known only as John Doe, provided evidence of hundreds of thousands of shell companies, tax havens, and money laundering resources used by major businesses. The mysterious whistleblower gave “income inequality” as his main motivation for providing the documents to the German press, saying he “understood enough about their contents to realise the scale of the injustices they described”. It also became clear that these practices were incredibly widespread among multinational corporations.
Bernstein’s book, and the Panama Papers themselves, are a complex labyrinth of information, important but difficult to follow and take in. Soderbergh managed to find a way to make the information not only accessible, but entertaining. The key to its success is the brilliant screenplay by Scott Z Burns, which presents the data not as a documentary – or even as a standard docu-drama – but as an offbeat, funny, slightly fantastical story, the shocking financial exposé told almost like an adult fairy tale.
Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas star as fanciful versions of real people: two lawyers implicated in the Panama Papers disclosure. They act as narrators and self-interested tour guides, taking the viewer through the series of events leading up to their arrests, lightheartedly defending their actions, and sometimes self-consciously taking the part of minor characters in the shifting vignettes that make up the story. (Without giving spoilers, several actors play multiple roles in the film, a fact that is creatively used to make a point in the final act). Meryl Streep takes on the significant role of an ordinary woman defrauded by an insurance company, whose situation can be ultimately traced to a corporate tax haven.
The multi-level plot carries the viewer through a series of chapters designated ‘secrets’ (Secret #1 is “the meek are screwed”), which involves the establishment of tax havens worldwide, the bribery of public officials, and the strange secret-within-a-secret techniques used to hide money and property even from their supposed owners. Minor players are always kept in view, as are the consequences of these business strategies for ordinary people and for the world at large. The film is a resounding success, managing to impart all the relevant data – and its horrifying significance – in a way that is impactful yet enjoyable for its unique storytelling.
2019 also saw the release of Dark Waters, an excellent fact-based drama by award-winning director Todd Hayes. The plot is drawn from a New York Times article by Nathaniel Rich and begins with farmers whose livestock are dying from exposure to toxic waste in the water supply coming from the nearby DuPont chemical company site. Following a lengthy and contentious legal battle, and after losing the first three individual lawsuits, DuPont agreed to a settlement for the remaining suits, leading to a total judgment of over $700 million. The case also revealed the dangers of contamination by certain common chemical agents, for humans as well as animals.
The film does an admirable job of dramatising the legal battle in a way sympathetic to the farmers and landowners impacted by DuPont’s actions. Mark Ruffalo stars as the hero of the piece, attorney Robert Bilott, who managed the class action lawsuit, and who continues to work as an activist in the area of chemical contamination; and Anne Hathaway plays his wife, Sarah Bilott. The film works well as an exciting and inspiring legal drama, and as an exposé.
Another Ken Loach film was released the same year: the sharp and well-crafted drama Sorry We Missed You, a realistic and painful portrait of a family struggling to make ends meet. In particular, it takes on the emerging gig economy. The main character, a father with two children, sees an opportunity in the new option of working as an ‘independent contractor’ with a ‘zero hour contract’ but soon discovers the system is exploitive, a way for businesses to have all the benefits of being an employer, but none of the responsibilities. Meanwhile, his wife struggles with a burdensome and poorly managed job as a home carer, and the children suffer as a result of their parents’ work demands.
The film captures perfectly and movingly the frustration and hopelessness of people taking every opportunity to better themselves and emerge from debt, but who are duped and victimised by businesses benefiting from a brutally unjust system.
Made in Bangladesh also premiered in 2019, a drama that deals with the issue of how a multinational corporation’s products get manufactured. Specifically, it portrays the hard work, low pay, and oppressive conditions found in a textile factory in Bangladesh, with an entirely female staff of workers. However, this film by director Rubayait Hossain is not a simple tale of exploitation. The central character Shimu (Rikita Nandini Shimu) is a bright, determined young woman who, through a series of bureaucratic ordeals, attempts to bring justice and better conditions to her workplace. After a fire in the textile factory kills a colleague, Shimu even takes on the herculean task of unionising her factory. Director Hossain’s past work as a women’s rights advocate informs the plot and allows the textile workers their own concerns and goals, large or small. Although the global corporation supplied by the factory is always present by implication, Hossain wisely makes this entirely Shimu’s story.
Some 17 years after the release of The Corporation, the same team of filmmakers released a sequel, The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel. Like the earlier film, it is based on the work of law professor Joel Bakan. The new documentary brilliantly takes on a recent development in corporate public relations: presenting multinational firms as a benevolent force dedicated not only to profit, but to the betterment of the world. The New Corporation cleverly and amusingly deflates this false veneer of goodwill and reveals the rather sinister reality behind it with the help of an array of expert voices, visual aids, and behind the scenes footage. The film is well made, entertaining, and highly informative.
Percy is a moderately well done dramatisation of a rare occurrence: a successful legal challenge against corporate giant Monsanto (now Bayer). Christopher Walken plays the title character Percy Schmeiser, a canola farmer who was accused of planting Monsanto’s patented, genetically modified canola seed without permission and asked to pay damages to the company. The farmer claimed the seed had simply blown onto his land from adjoining farms and taken root. He also took exception to Monsanto’s claim that they owned any seed from their genetically engineered canola into perpetuity, and the conflict became a perfect illustration of the rival interests of farmers and GMO-producing companies. The resulting, well-publicised court case ended in a surprising win for Schmeiser and, in the process, brought concerns about the patenting of living organisms – and the ways it impacts agriculture – into the public eye. The film does a decent job of re-enacting the legal battle and illustrating the key points of contention.
Schmeiser’s case against Monsanto, and the principles it represents, was the basis for an earlier work, the 2013 stage play Seeds by Annabel Soutar. Scrupulously fact-based, the play used courtroom testimony and recorded interviews as the foundation of the dialogue.
The so-called opioid crisis, a drastic increase in addiction and overdose of prescription drugs, especially in the US, has been widely discussed but seldom as effectively as in The Crime of the Century. The four-hour film was written and directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney, producer/director of first-rate documentaries for over 40 years, exposing everything from Scientology to enhanced interrogation techniques. Produced in association with the Washington Post, it was released directly to television as a two-part series by HBO. It is a high-quality, engaging film but also a ruthless exposé, delving into the real causes of the unprecedented flood of addictive opioids, the people who suffered the consequences, the companies and the people behind it all, and the public officials who enabled the entire process.
Part One, following a brief but cogent introduction to the history of opium as a commodity, moves on to the development of Oxycontin, a prescription painkiller developed by Purdue Pharmaceuticals, which was the origin of the current crisis. While it was meant to replace drugs such as morphine, used for the most severe pain and for terminal patients, the company’s executives soon realised the potential value of the drug if marketed more aggressively, directly to physicians. The film follows Purdue’s campaign, which used misleading evidence to assure doctors that Oxycontin was effective, safe, and non-addictive. Literature and extravagant live presentations explained that the usual symptoms of addiction simply indicated the need for a higher dosage, also advising doctors that it was virtually impossible to overdose on Oxycontin.
The tragic results are made clear in the film: misleading claims alternate with cases of injury, death, or intractable addiction caused by the drug. Even as health workers, community groups, and the press respond to the growing threat, Purdue continues its highly profitable work, and other pharmaceutical companies begin to produce replicas of the highly successful medication. The spotlight is also turned on public officials who, for a variety of questionable reasons, failed to act, even when the level of fraud and mismanagement – and the extent of the opioid crisis – became painfully clear.
Part Two continues the account, beginning with the development of a new and even more dangerous drug: Fentanyl. At this stage, the disastrous effects of newly developed opioids had been extensively covered in the press, and the dire consequences of poorly regulated Fentanyl did not escape public notice. The film follows the determined efforts of several companies to overcome or subvert bad press and continue to promote their products directly to physicians — the actual videos used as company-to-professional advertising border on self-parody but are all too real. The story, enhanced by interviews with former pharmaceutical company executives, reveals the practices of not only spreading questionable data about their drugs, but using benefits that are tantamount to bribery and wages based on the volume of sales for company sales representatives. The consequences, of course, resulted in doctors being urged to over-prescribe their newly developed medications.
The multiple companies which followed Purdue’s example also inserted themselves into the supposedly independent systems which approved new medications and approved their particular usages by physicians and pharmacists, resulting in an almost unbelievable level of overuse. Company insiders provide colourful and enlightening on-screen descriptions of the culture that exists within drug companies, and their methods of lobbying government agencies – both legal and covert – result in laws friendly to drug manufacturers. Meanwhile, the film periodically notes through disturbing videos, that deaths from opioid overdose continue to increase drastically. The limited consequences faced by drug companies and their executives are handled in the format of a crime drama and provide the story with a sense of closure, despite the painfully unsatisfactory outcome.
The Crime of the Century is a model documentary, well organised and scrupulous in backing up its facts, but also engrossing and watchable. The visuals are high quality and enhance the data being presented; the soundtrack is quiet and subtle but serves to embellish the scene, except when it breaks out into well-chosen popular music – which provides added commentary – and the presentation flows smoothly and logically throughout. The filmmakers also know enough to stand down and avoid hyperbole and melodrama about the culpability of pharmaceutical companies, simply presenting the facts, which in this case are amply horrifying all on their own.
The 2022 international documentary festival ‘Hot Docs’ opened with the world premiere of Into The Weeds, a picture directed by Jennifer Baichwal. The film tells the David-vs-Goliath story of Dewayne Johnson, who successfully sued massive chemical corporation Monsanto (now Bayer) for lethal damage to his health caused by exposure to their weed killer, Roundup (glyphosate), over many years while working as a groundskeeper. The 2018 trial found Monsanto responsible, concluded that the company had failed to warn consumers of their product’s carcinogenic properties, and awarded Johnson $289 million (later reduced by the judge to $78 million). Thousands of other cancer survivors are also initiating lawsuits against Monsanto, bringing more attention to Monsanto’s questionable policies and unwholesome influence on public health authorities and reviving interest in Johnson’s groundbreaking case. It is a troubling but inspiring story of a rare success against a corporation that might have been designed as an ideal target for public outrage, assembled by a master documentarian.
To conclude on a more positive note, Magnitude (alternately titled The Magnitude of All Things) was released on April 22nd – Earth Day – by Sundance award-winning director Jennifer Abbott. Abbott, the film’s writer and narrator as well as director, approaches the subject of climate change and environmental degradation from a uniquely personal perspective. As a starting point, she parallels the grief from the recent death of her sister with grief over the destruction of the natural environment, her sister’s terminal cancer with the ‘sickness’ of the planet. She even compares the burden of chemotherapy with the challenge of changing practices which harm the planet.
From here, the film addresses environmental damage, in part by using images of a healthy natural environment to contrast with the harm caused by climate change, pollution, and various forms of reckless development. Visually pleasing and loving scenes of nature are enhanced by a soothing, unobtrusive classical soundtrack. Diverse voices are heard throughout, as Greta Thunberg makes an appearance, while the filmmakers also visit a small island nation preparing itself to be submerged and obliterated as water levels rise. Elsewhere, members of traditional cultures worldwide describe their unusual, largely discarded views of the natural world. The affection for nature is accompanied by a sense of futility and dread, while the psychological effects of climate change and the natural disasters that go with it are examined from many perspectives.
The connection between corporate interests and environmental damage is made clear, but it remains in the background; no specific companies are named, and no particular atrocities are cited. Even activism is explored only on the personal level, often in the form of small, individual gestures which have the potential to strike a chord and expand into something massive. Magnitude makes the unusual choice to address man-made climate change apolitically, as a personal matter. Even more, in contrast to a typical documentary on the subject, it is openly emotional, unashamedly spiritual, and brazenly poetic. It does not suggest ways of fighting the structures behind environmental damage, but it does offer excellent motivation for making an attempt.
See a complete list of the movies featured in this article, below.
The best anti-corporate films of the 21st century:
- Erin Brockovich – Steven Soderbergh
- Bread and Roses – Ken Loach
- The Corporation – Jennifer Abbott and Mark Achbar
- No Logo – Sut Jhally
- Thank You For Smoking – Jason Reitman
- Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room – Alex Gibney
- Capitalism: A Love Story – Michael Moore
- The Shock Doctrine – Mat Whitecross, Michael Winterbottom
- Even The Rain – Icíar Bollaín
- Inside Job – Charles Ferguson
- Too Big To Fail – Curtis Hanson
- Bottled Life: Nestle’s Business With Water – Urs Schnell
- A Dark Truth – Damian Lee
- Greedy Lying Bastards – Craig Rosebraugh
- The Yes Men Are Revolting – Igor Vamos, Jacques Servin, Laura Nix
- The Big Short – Adam McKay
- Dark Money – Kimberly Reed
- Radium Girls – Ginny Mohler, Lydia Dean Pilcher
- The Laundromat – Steven Soderbergh
- Dark Waters – Todd Haynes
- Sorry We Missed You – Ken Loach
- Made in Bangladesh – Rubaiyat Hossain
- The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel – Joel Bakan, Jennifer Abbott
- Percy – Clark Johnson
- The Crime of the Century – Alex Gibney
- Into The Weeds – Jennifer Baichwal
- Magnitude – Jennifer Abbott