Eschewing subtlety in a manner that corresponds to the expansion methods of its subject, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price hammers home the ubiquity of the Arkansawyer megachain through rapid-fire montage, using a parade of jubilant adverts and stark parking-lot footage to summarize a clandestine economic coup. Approaching their antagonist through a distinctly subjective point of view, the documentary team obtains statements from ex-employees and disheartened small business owners, sourcing the legwork of economists and reporters through second-generation YouTube clips. The intimacy of the interview segments benefits the narrative progression, but the lack of independent research fosters a discernible imbalance between sentiment and truth, inadvertently transforming each passionate testimonial into fodder for yellow journalism and clickbait-style sanctimony.
Utilizing Middlefield, Ohio as a microcosm for America en masse, Robert Greenwald positions the strategic decimation of the Christian working class as an inside job, exposing Wal-Mart’s core value system as a grand misdirection intended to anesthetize the flock to predatory business tactics. By concentrating on the illusion of piety and contrasting hierarchy of power, Greenwald reveals a culture of intimidation, giving a voice to personnel that suffer through dashed unionization prospects and competitors that struggle to keep their businesses in the black. Through a taut assemblage of archival footage, the editorial staff paints an overarching portrait of collusion between political power and financial wealth, linking government subsidies and tax breaks to a monopolistic market and unemployed workforce.
Adopting community activism as the cure for this corporate cancer, Greenwald relishes in lively b-roll of peaceful protests and fervent oration, substituting a soundtrack of Americana and evangelical platitude for veritable statistics. Though conjecture makes for a compelling argument, insult is far more alluring, and Greenwald shapes his demonization of former CEO Lee Scott into an expeditious bit of character assassination, transforming a noble piece of nonfiction into blue-collar nightmare, replete with reclusive bluebloods and Dickensian misers.
Nevertheless, the passage of eleven years has enabled the affluent to inch closer to absolute power and the laboring class to further sink in a quicksand of mounting debt and misplaced blame, making the film’s penchant for vilification forgivable in the face of forthcoming mercantile turpitude. Virtual industrialization may be held accountable for the demise of the family-owned business, but Wal-Mart’s cheapening of the American workforce is far more conspicuous and rapacious, crippling the proletariat by stripping it of autonomy and agency. If only The High Cost of Low Price had the foresight to scrutinize this forfeiture of independence, instead of distracting from its central thesis by way of cheap melodrama and languorous direction.
Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price (Brave New Films, 2005)
Directed by Robert Greenwald
Photographed by Kristy Tully