Wal-Mart: The High Cost of a Low Price

"Very Good"

Wal-Mart: The High Cost of a Low Price Review


When it comes to the shibboleths loathed by the left, from President Bush to Fox News, the one that seems to generate the most antipathy is the discount behemoth that is Wal-Mart. In his new muckraking film Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, Robert Greenwald - who previously went after Rupert Murdoch's flag-waving news channel in Outfoxed - takes on America's single biggest employer, an entity that stands accused of everything from annihilating small town economies to union-busting. While the result can at times seem more like a very effective promotional tool for the current vogue of Wal-Mart boycotts than a proper documentary, it also stands as a good model of how to approach such an emotional topic without hysteria - a rarity in agitprop films of this kind.

The structure of Greenwald's film is pretty simple but effective, it's one used quite often by newsmagazine shows like Dateline. Each segment begins with an idyllic presentation of a small-town business or ordinary workers just trying to make ends meet and raise their families. Then we find out how Wal-Mart has not only torched these people's lives but done so in a way that's hard for even the most ardently laissez-faire capitalist not to be disturbed by. It's difficult to look at scene after scene of vacant storefronts on the deserted main streets of small towns - an effect of a Wal-Mart opening nearby which is memorably referred to by one person as akin to a neutron bomb explosion - and not feel that this is an area where something more complicated than strict supply and demand rules need to be considered.

Greenwald sidesteps criticism of media elitism by wisely focusing not on professional agitators, union leaders, or economics professors and instead giving us the word straight from the people directly affected, an often solidly red state bunch who hunt and vote Republican but think there's something un-American and monopolistic about this corporation. There's mom-and-pop business owners furious about losing their decades-old stores, not through fair competition, but because their local government gave millions in tax subsidies to a new Wal-Mart but wouldn't give a dollar to locals.

But the real meat of the film's argument comes with the company's treatment of its workers. The litany of accusations here might be familiar, but they're nevertheless affecting, ranging from illegal workers locked in the stores overnight to employees forced to go on government assistance (which store managers helpfully provide them with information about) and union-busting activities (including spy cameras and intimidation) that seem to have been learned from Warsaw Pact spy agencies. What gives Greenwald's arguments more heft than might be expected is the large number of former high-level employees he's rounded up, managers with 10 to 15 years' experience at Wal-Mart, who are more than happy to explain the details of the company's rapacious profit-mongering, whether it's how to cheat workers out of overtime pay, keep women and minorities out of leadership positions, or hide shoddy conditions in overseas factories.

Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Living will win few points for art -- this is take-no-prisoners propaganda -- but its subject matter provides such a wealth of material that subtlety is hardly required, nor even desired.

The high light over a low store.



Facts and Figures

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5

Cast & Crew

Producer: , Jim Gilliam, Devin Smith

Also starring:

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