The Corporation is a documentary, but it's hard not to feel the rising terror of a horror flick while watching it. There are the stock, doomed good guys and a raft of sinister villains. Scariest of all is the premise that if left unchecked, the corporation, as the dominant institution of our day, will eventually be our undoing.
The Corporation, which has played to sold-out houses in (not surprisingly) Canada and opens in June in American theaters, is based on Joel Bakan's new book, The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power (Free Press, 2004), a title that isn't subtle about its intent. Like the book, the movie, by Bakan and Canadian filmmakers Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott, draws on a checklist from a psychological diagnostic manual to argue that the corporation—recognized under U.S. law as a "person"—meets the criteria of, you guessed it, a psychopath. Callous unconcern for the feelings of others? Check. Reckless disregard for others' safety? Yep. Failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors? Uh-huh.
The device is gimmicky, but the point is well made: Perhaps it's time for consumers, governments, and execs to rein in this lunatic. As filmmaker-activist Michael Moore (What—you thought he wouldn't be in on this?) puts it, "[Corporations] only have one thing. The bottom line . . . There's no such thing as enough."
Via interviews with economists (Milton Friedman), CEOs (Goodyear's Sam Gibara), activists (Naomi Klein), professors, corporate spies, and other experts, The Corporation makes its case with the deliberateness of a prosecutor. While some examples, such as appalling labor conditions in developing nations, are hardly surprising, others, like the canned Fox News expose on Monsanto's bovine growth hormone, may spur you to look twice at the milk in your morning cereal.
The question of curing this psychopath—or whether that's even possible—comes as a bit of an afterthought, and The Corporation resorts to mostly facile solutions (basically, "Power to the people!"). The real drama here isn't in the solution but in the graphic exposition of the problem itself, in the onslaught of evidence that perhaps we've created a monster. When Ray Anderson, CEO of carpet maker Interface Corp., acknowledges, "the first Industrial Revolution is flawed, it is not working, it is unsustainable, it is the mistake," The Corporation's warning to capitalism is clear: Be very afraid.
A version of this article appeared in the Table of Contents - May 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.