I watched Robert Greenwald’s documentary Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price last night. To put it bluntly, I was disappointed. There was such a viral build-up for the movie, with hundreds (maybe thousands) of small screenings scheduled for this week. About 20 minutes into the movie, I realized that it was of the same poor quality of Greenwald’s previous documentary OutFoxed.
I can understand and even forgive that the image quality, overall visual presentation, and editing are sub-par, given Greenwald’s shoestring budget. What I can’t overlook is how poorly the arc/narrative is constructed (if it even exists at all). There never seems to be a set of questions and/or principles that are being explored. Instead it’s a hodgepodge of images and stories all falling under the theme “Wal-Mart is bad.” I was left wanting more cohesiveness, more narrative, more of a moral and a theme.
The piece certainly had its good features. A few of the chapters are poignant and eye-opening. It ends on an upbeat note with stories of towns and communities fighting back and winning. The worst that could happen is that more people hear about the movie and are inspired to think about and question their purchasing habits.
What worries me is the rumors of Wal-Mart’s upcoming documentary/video response. If the rumors are true, Wal-Mart’s piece will surely blow Greenwald’s out of the water.
Overall, while it conveys a few powerful personalized stories, it fails in so many other ways. The film is poorly conceived, produced, edited, and executed. We’re given lots of anecdotal reasons to believe Wal-Mart is bad, but there’s no final conclusion. Greenwald had the opportunity to connect the pieces and really take a message and drive it home. But he opted to leave it at the anecdotes. And while that may be fine for some audiences, my guess is that there were many others like me who were left wanting more.
But, fret not gentle viewer! There is a better option out there. I also purchased and watched PBS Frontline’s investigation of Wal-Mart called Is Wal-Mart Good for America. In contrast to Greenwald’s documentary, this piece of investigative journalism is fantastic. At approximately 55 minutes long, the Frontline piece is focused, explorative, enlightening, high quality, thought provoking, and cohesive. Frontline’s audience is presumably more highly educated than Greenwald’s intended audience. And, while Frontline managed to draw me in and keep me asking questions, it did, however, seem to lack the personal touch. If I could combine Frontline with two chapters of Greenwald’s piece, I think I’d have the perfect mixture of challenging expose and intimate eye-opener.
Finally, in Greenwald’s documentary, one shop owner mentions a book called How Wal-Mart is Destroying America (and the World) and What You Can Do About It. My favorite part is when the shop owner says that one of his Amish patrons brought him a box of the books to distribute. I don’t know why, but I thought that was great!