Does the world need another tract on corporate malfeasance and mendacity? Probably not: Robert Greenwald’s latest, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, doesn’t reveal much about the rollback retail juggernaut—union busting, underpaid workers, environmental negligence—that couldn’t be gleaned from a few judicious Google searches. Yet Wal-Mart signals that one of political documentary’s most inflammatory practitioners has developed a strategy to deflect criticism from the right. Greenwald works in a subtle thread of equal-opportunity victimization, showing that folks who adorn their walls with calendars of Ronald Reagan cowboyin’ up are just as liable to be screwed over by the yellow smiley face as liberals. Ohio store owners put out of business by mega-mart encroachment, Florida employees encouraged by management to use Medicaid and food stamps because of a systemic poverty-wage policy, California women routinely passed over for promotion, Texas workers cheated out of overtime pay—everyone gets rogered but good.
As always (and unlike Michael Moore), Greenwald’s other rhetorical strategy is to remove his own voice from the mix, avoiding the common outsider- tilting-at-windmills pratfalls of most exposé docs. For every PR-savvy claim to civic responsibility made by CEO Lee Scott, the documentary lines up a wageworker or company officer to refute it with their personal experiences. Viewers may not be surprised to learn of Wal-Mart’s horrific track record, but they can’t deny Greenwald’s airtight advocacy.