Saturday, June 10, 2006

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

Repeat after me: “Wal-Mart Bad; Family Business Good. Wal-Mart Bad; Family Business Good. 2 Legs Bad; 4 Legs Good.” Continue for the next 90 minutes and you will pretty much recreate the experience of watching Robert Greenwald’s diatribe “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price.” This clunky documentary exposes various reasons why Wal-Mart is evil, including: 1) They drive small-town stores out of business (often intentionally). 2) Misguided local governments often bribe Wal-Mart to come to town by giving them tax breaks. Since Wal-Mart then drives the existing, tax-paying stores out of business, the result is a loss of tax dollars for schools, etc. 3) Wal-Mart has crappy wages and minimal health insurance. Their managers have to keep a list of public programs like food stamps and Medicaid that they encourage their employees to pursue. Full-time employees on welfare! 4) Wal-Mart forces employees to work off the clock, hires illegal aliens, and discriminates against women. 5) Their stores have some bad environmental practices, like keeping bags of pesticide sitting out in the parking lot where they contaminate nearby water. 6) Wal-Mart factories are almost all overseas, where they can exploit the workers even more than they do here in the U.S. 7) Wal-Mart parking lots are unsafe. 8) Well, you get the idea. If you didn’t already think that Wal-Mart is evil, this film will hit you over the head with it until you believe.

My problem with this documentary is not that I disagree with it; I am actually very much in favor of shopping at local stores and buying American instead of supporting China-mart. I just think Robert Greenwald took a ham-handed, one-sided approach that reduces his work to the level of propaganda, and weak propaganda at that. At least when Michael Moore tells half-truths, he makes it entertaining. “The High Cost of Low Price” is to entertainment what Wal-Mart is to small businesses. In many cases, Greenwald’s attempts to show the human side of Wal-Mart’s evils just wound up being people crying on camera. Dude, there’s nothing entertaining about someone crying! The segment about high crime in Wal-Mart parking lots is just un-watchable. I think the point was supposed to be that Wal-Mart spends a lot on cameras and security guards inside the store, but they don’t bother with security in the parking lot, even though more violent crimes occur there. It was hard for me to get that message, because the segment is mostly people giving tearful descriptions of crimes they or a loved suffered in a Wal-Mart parking lot. Apparently, people have moved from expecting the government to look after their personal safety to expecting businesses to do so. Also, no effort is made to allow a rebuttal or present Wal-Mart’s side of the story. There are archival clips of Wal-Mart president Lee Scott making various statements, but they are just used to show what a hypocrite he supposedly is. Almost all of the interviews are with disgruntled former Wal-Mart employees; they do not interview anyone who has a satisfying Wal-Mart career. Finally, as crazy as it sounds, I have this theory that the reason Wal-Mart is able to move into so many towns and take over is that people shop there. This film doesn’t have a single interview with a regular Wal-Mart customer to see why they shop there and explore how shopper’s values affect their buying decisions (if at all).

All of that is a shame, because the topic of this film is very timely and worthwhile. How much are we willing to sacrifice to get rock-bottom retail prices? How much are we really saving if store prices are low, but taxes have to be raised to support the families of people who work at the stores? How long can a nation remain strong once all of its manufacturing jobs have been moved overseas? There are a number of pointed questions that need to be asked about Wal-Mart and our consumer culture, and maybe someday a better documentarian will ask them (Morgan Spurlock, are you listening?). In the meantime, “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price” is too lazy to preach to anyone but the choir.

1 star for the film. 5 stars for the topic.

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