Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price Review

Robert Greenwald’s films are admirable for their tenacity in the face of overwhelming odds. He has a penchant for taking on various behemoths – Fox News, the US Government and now Wal-Mart – and digging just far enough under their skin to become a source of irritation. Outfoxed was a storming attack on Fox News which managed to score so many bullseyes that the corporation, unable to counter any of the central allegations, was reduced to complaining about some ambiguous editing and a couple of false statements about ex-employees. Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price is an equally ferocious assault on the dangers of unfettered capitalism as represented by the largest retailer in the world.

Wal-Mart was founded as a single store in 1962 and has since become the second biggest corporation in the world with a sales revenue of $316 billion. It’s a big target and, in some senses, an easy one. But according to Greenwald’s documentary, the corporation lays itself open to all manner of complaints ranging from the restriction of union rights to an unaffordable staff healthcare programme. Some of this is common knowledge – the anti-union policies for example - and some of it is currently a matter of legal dispute – several employees are suing Wal-Mart for forcing them to work ‘off the clock’. But what is fascinating is the sheer weight of material which Greenwald provides. Every point is carefully explained and then backed up with at least two or three examples. It could be argued that much of the evidence comes from disgruntled ex-employees and that would no doubt be one of Wal-Mart’s arguments, had they bothered to take up Greenwald’s offers of a right of reply. But it’s hard to seriously argue with the evidence on offer because there is so much of it and, unusually for the liberal-documentary genre, it comes from a dizzying array of political positions – there are as many rabid Republicans on display as there are painfully concerned liberals.

Other criticisms in the film are a little less carefully focused –for instance, claiming that Wal-Mart doesn’t sell as many American goods as it does foreign imports may be true but it doesn’t add much to the specific argument when the same criticism can be applied equally to a large number of other retail corporations. It could also have been usefully pointed out that the environmental pollution allegedly caused by the corporation is a problem endemic to American business and industry in general and not simply the action of one corporate behemoth. I’m not defending Wal-Mart, I’m simply suggesting that it might have been a good idea to add a bit of context for the viewer. Wal-Mart behaves in the way it does because of the business environment in which it operates and not despite it – anyone who seriously doubts this is directed to the excellent 2004 documentary The Corporation. A broader political background might have made the film more effective – although it would also have made it more diffuse and less powerful.

If there’s one major problem with Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price it’s that, as with Greenwald’s other films, it’s basically preaching to the converted. It’s hard to imagine anyone watching this and being genuinely shocked because the whole thing is geared to people who already think that Wal-Mart sucks as a corporation and, indeed, that corporations suck in general. Everything you need to know about the film is contained in the title and there is not a single surprise to be had anywhere within it. That’s not a weakness exactly, at least not when the film is as intelligent and entertaining as this is. But a great documentary has the ability to startle, to challenge your assumptions - The Fog of War for example, where my whole understanding of American history in the 1960s was torn asunder. Robert Greenwald’s films are fine, upstanding liberal documents but they are never startling.

But it’s certainly very enjoyable to watch. The decision to have the film ‘narrated’ by a speech given by Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott was inspired and the contrasts are often very funny, as are the spoof commercials which pop up from time to time. Greenwald also has a knack for storytelling, as he demonstrated when talking about Jeremy Glick and Bill O’Reilly in Outfoxed and he uses his gift here in the poignant tales of small storeowners forced out of business when a Wal-Mart store opened up in their vicinity. The faces are wonderful and Greenwald knows when to let a telling image do the talking. Indeed, the first part of the film is the best because it tugs at our emotions without either overloading us with facts or political points. The last part of the film, in contrast, tugs a little too hard at our emotions as it offers up a montage of small victories against Wal-Mart as if a thousand points of light are burning holes through the corporate hide. It’s understandable that Greenwald should want a happy ending but he should also be experienced to know when enough is enough.

The Disc

Tartan’s disc of this film, which wasn’t released in cinemas in the US and received a limited theatrical run here, is quite acceptable, considering that the film never looked particularly good in the first place. The internet-sourced video segments look pretty bad as do some of the low-lit interior scenes but the new interview scenes are reasonably crisp. All in all this doesn’t look much different from the version of the film which I saw during its brief UK cinema release. The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack is absolutely fine, making the most of the eclectic soundtrack which includes an attractive music score by John Frizzell and songs from the likes of Bruce Springsteen – doing a great cover of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land”.

The extra features are a little disappointing. We lose the reportedly excellent commentary from the Region 1 disc and instead get an exclusive 23 minute interview with the director which is good but not a wholly satisfying substitute. We also get three deleted scenes, two of which repeat some material already in the film, and a 16 minute behind-the-scenes feature which is quite interesting in its explanation of how a tiny-budget film like this manages to get made on such a large scale. ‘Victory for Queen’s Market’ is a short piece about how the Market in the East End of London was saved from the spectre of an Asda opening next door. Finally, an original trailer is included.

No subtitles are included which is a regrettable oversight.

Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price is obviously a biased, personal film and it doesn’t pretend to be remotely objective. But it’s well made, entertaining and often touching enough to help you see beyond its limitations. Left-wing and liberal viewers will probably find themselves nodding appreciatively. More hawkish eyes may not be so sympathetic.

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