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The Disinformation Company presents
Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price (2005)

"When we start talking about quality of life, they start talking about cheap underwear."
- An anti-sprawl activist, on Wal-Mart

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: December 06, 2005

Director: Robert Greenwald

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:37m:36s
Release Date: November 15, 2005
UPC: 859835001016
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B- A-BC C+

DVD Review

Robert Greenwald is candid about his politics, and here he wants to do to America's largest retailer what he did to that fair and balanced news network in Outfoxed. The results, actually, are kind of similar—Greenwald lacks a deft touch as a filmmaker, and as a polemicist, he's a little bit wanting. But the facts about Wal-Mart that he presents here are so galling that, even unrebutted and not expressed in the most cogent and artful way, the movie is liable to make your blood boil, though if your last name is Walton, that would be for very different reasons.

The images are all too familiar in towns all over America: a once thriving downtown turned ghostly quiet, the local businesses run out by the behemoth retailer that has set up shop on the outskirts, aided by government subsidies, astonishingly meager wages to their sales force, offering goods produced in sweatshops in Third World countries. Greenwald and his research team have dug up the right sorts of anecdotes to put a human face on the consequence of Wal-Mart's business practices—it's hard not to be moved by the story of H & H Hardware in Middlefield, Ohio, for instance, a family-run business that was to be the inheritance of the next generation, now closed up because the store couldn't compete when Wal-Mart came to Middlefield. The movie gets at how the corporation squeezes out every last dime: demanding unpaid overtime from its workers; keeping the stores deliberately understaffed; refusing to put security guards in their parking lots, which results in robberies, rapes and murders of their customers; and dispatching the rapid-response team from Benton, Arkansas on the corporate jet at the first mention in any of their stores of the word "union."

But anecdotes aren't the same thing as data, and Greenwald does a disservice to his material and to his audience by plopping fake news headline graphics on top of his footage—it's almost like he know he hasn't quite captured the goods, and needs to drive his point home. There's some great muckraking here—the stories of Wal-Mart's willful ignorance of fertilizer for sale cavalierly getting spilled into the water supply, for instance, is enough to turn your stomach—but the whole is sort of unfocused, even sloppy. Whatever you think of Michael Moore, you'd have to admit that he's a hell of a rhetorician—you could probably say the same about Rush Limbaugh—and you realize how vital the story of Lila Lipscomb, the mother whose son was killed in Iraq, is to the impact of Fahrenheit 9/11. Greenwald has no such analogous figure, and we're left a bit rudderless, by his laundry list of charges against Wal-Mart.

He does have an anti-hero of sorts, though—the default connective tissue of the documentary is a speech broadcast on C-SPAN by Lee Scott, current Wal-Mart CEO, who makes $27 million annually. He comes off as a smarmy, self-satisfied, horrid man, if not a liar—but you get that in just a few seconds from a clip from The Daily Show, included here, and you start to wish that the David taking on this Goliath was a more accomplished filmmaker and storyteller than Greenwald. He also doesn't get at perhaps the crucial question for those of us disgusted by what we see here: when times are tight, should we pay more out of our own pocket for the same goods and services to avoid giving our business to Wal-Mart? Morally, I know, of course we should; and Greenwald's point is that we're paying anyway, by providing outrageous subsidies to this corporation, and by allowing it to use the welfare system as their de facto employee health insurance plan. But if you're living paycheck to paycheck and have mouths to feed, you can't really be blamed for wanting to have to pay as little as possible for food and clothing and the other necessities of life. Greenwald ends on what he thinks of as an uplifting note, with a couple of communities who rallied to keep Wal-Mart out of the neighborhood. Good for them; but it's too much to ask that community activists and people wielding hand-painted signs take on the richest family in America, only because our leaders have punted on their responsibility, and have allowed Wal-Mart, in just about every way possible, to violate the social compact.

Rating for Style: B-
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.78:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: This is largely an assembly of clips, so the video quality varies; the transfer is adequate, at best.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes

Audio Transfer Review: The audio is much tougher to take than the picture quality—balance problems are to be expected, I suppose, but occasionally the interview subjects are so muffled as to be inaudible.

Audio Transfer Grade: C


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 18 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in Spanish, French with remote access
2 Documentaries
6 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Robert Greenwald
Packaging: Scanavo
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: Greenwald provides a spirited commentary track, having largely to do with the evolution of his narrative—listening to him, you can understand, structurally, why this movie is sort of a jumble, though you have to give the director and his team credit for hunting up as much poignant stuff as they have. A highlight reel (23m:14s) pretty much tells the whole story, raising the question as to why the feature couldn't have been edited down still further; Greenwald presides over a making-of piece (16m:35s) that emphasizes the extensive research effort.

Wal-Mart isn't inflicting their brand of cavalier capitalism only in the U.S., and we're offered looks at the havoc they've tried to wreak in Canada (06m:17s) and England (03m:51s). Our Moral Voices (02m:47s) collects footage of members of the clergy preaching against Wal-Mart, with an emphasis on 1 Timothy 6:10: "The love of money is the root of all evil." Don't Mourn, Take Action (08m:14s) implores you to do the same as successful community groups that fended off the Wal-Mart advances. Greenwald splices in some fake commercials into his feature, and they're assembled here (8 in all; 05m:37s). At best, they're only intermittently funny, and you know it's a problem when their producers take longer to explain the jokes than to tell them, in a look (07m:17s) behind the scenes.

Extras Grade: C+


Final Comments

The filmmaking is rather clumsy and ham handed, but the material is nothing less than scandalous—of course, Robert Greenwald's arguments go unanswered here, but if even a fraction of what is in here is accurate, the real scandal is not that Wal-Mart does things that are illegal, but that they are legally allowed to get away with outrage after outrage, all in the interest of driving up the stock price. Once you watch this, you'll be very leery of ever giving any business to the Walton family again.


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