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The High Cost Of Low Price

director: Robert Greenwald

95 minutes (PG) 2005
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
Tartan DVD Region 0 retail

RATING: 3/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Making a documentary is, like all pieces of journalism, a balancing act between the desire to editorialise and the need to be objective. Some recent documentaries (Enron - The Smartest Guys In The Room) have tried hard to be as objective and as rigorous as possible, taking the time to explain complex matters to audiences so that they can fully understand what it is that's going on. On the other end of the spectrum, documentary makers such as Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) have kept their documentaries personal, leaving us to the viewer the job of generalising and drawing wider conclusions from the plight of the filmmaker. However, many documentaries seem to inhabit the grey area between these two extremes where the line between investigative journalism and political rhetoric is less clear, possibly because it is intentionally blurred by the filmmakers themselves. Robert Greenwald's Wal-Mart: The High Cost Of Low Price is an example of this latter kind of documentary.

In 2001, Micha X. Peled released her Store Wars - When Wal-Mart Comes To Town. This was an intimate look at the town of Ashland, Virginia that showed the real human cost paid for the low prices of Wal-Mart when the local businesses started to shut down. However, unlike Peled, Greenwald prefers to look at the larger picture in order to generate a wider and more generalised indictment of Wal-Mart and their business practices. Using interviews with disgruntled former employees and members of a couple of small grass-roots organisations, Greenwald lays seven claims at Wal-Mart's door. He claims that Wal-Mart...

  • Destroys small business thanks to government subsidy
  • Does everything short of using violence to keep unions out of their stores
  • Uses sweatshop labour
  • Discriminates against black people and women
  • Doesn't care about the environment
  • Refuses to give its employees free health insurance
  • Is responsible for the crimes committed in its car parks

  • What is frustrating with this film is that while Greenwald clearly enjoys making big claims, he is less interested in analysing the actual substance and context of the criticisms he levels at Wal-Mart. Indeed, instead of allowing his points to be made by experts or talking heads who could ram home why Wal-Mart's business practices are wrong, Greenwald prefers to fog the mind with petty sentimentalism by giving platforms to disgruntled former employees with hidden agendas and the politically naïve who vote for George W. Bush and are then horrified when the government refuses to prop up their businesses when they have to compete against Wal-Mart's lower prices and better choice. The result is a film that systematically fails to make anything more of its criticisms than empty political rhetoric.

    For example, why is Wal-Mart evil for failing to give its employees universal free health care? Is this not simply a criticism of America for being the richest country on Earth and yet refusing to provide free health care for its citizens? Similarly, the claim that Wal-Mart is evil for outsourcing jobs to China, admittedly compared to an American the Chinese workers lead terrible ill-paid lives but how do these lives compare to working back on their parents' farms? Furthermore, why do the crimes carried out in Wal-Mart's parking lots reflect badly upon Wal-Mart rather than the local police?

    Ultimately, this film is failed by Greenwald's cowardice. The reason why Greenwald prefers making affective criticisms voiced by victims of Wal-Mart to making effective ones voiced by experts is because many of the criticisms he levels at Wal-Mart are actually levelled at the American people. Indeed, Wal-Mart prospers because people would rather pay less for food and clothes than they would at a local shop. Similarly, Chinese workers are exploited because the American people want to benefit from jeans that cost practically nothing to produce. The more one analyses Wal-Mart's crimes, the more one realises that far from being a moral aberration, Wal-Mart is a creation of the American people.

    However, to understand and voice this, Greenwald would need to pick a political viewpoint that was at odds with the bulk of the American people and which clearly did think that it was unacceptable to not have universal free medical care. Much like fellow polemicist Michael Moore, Greenwald refuses to nail his colours to the flag and prefers to simplify what are complex political choices, which all members of democratic societies have to make, into simple morality tales. Of course nobody likes there to be poor people or underpaid Chinese workers, but the issue is whether it is worth sacrificing your cheap clothes and low taxes to do away with these moral outrages. The American people clearly think it isn't and this is what Greenwald cravenly refuses to point out.

    A thought provoking but ultimately frustrating look at the practices and policies of the Wal-Mart Corporation, Wal-Mart ultimately fails to deliver any truly interesting facts or arguments, preferring instead to trot out politically na�ve sentiment aimed squarely at those punters who already think that corporations like Wal-Mart are 'a bad thing'. Avoid unless you're looking to be pandered to.

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