Jennifer Abbott and Joel Bakan’s The New Corporation is a documentary sequel to The Corporation that’s not as radical as it thinks it is. Keep up to date with our TIFF ’20 coverage.
How many documentaries get a follow up? Supersize Me, An Inconvenient Truth, Fahrenheit 9/11… These are the big, zeitgeist-driven docs from the 2000s, a time before Vox explainers greatly reduced the appeal of the infodump market. And yet here is Jennifer Abbott and Joel Bakan’s The New Corporation, a follow up to 2002’s The Corporation, because things have changed somewhat since that film was made in the shadow of Enron.
The New Corporation begins with a prevalent aspect of corporate culture that I haven’t seen discussed much on film: false claims of social responsibility. In a world where corporations legally have the same or more rights than people, their leaders dupe the public by acting as though they are giving back. The Bill Gates Foundation would be a prime example of a charity that sinks billions into fighting diseases like HIV and Ebola, but targets technology driven solutions that ultimately aid Gates and his shareholders. The subject of global capitalism in our fraught present is so pernicious and all encompassing (it’s hardly news that capitalism has its tendrils in every aspect of society) that directors Abbott and Bakan can’t handle it in 100 minutes without resorting to easy sloganeering and feel-good posturing.
For all the radical positions the film tries to convince us that it holds, its cinematic techniques are wholly conventional. Glossy visuals, drone shots, and slick talking heads make this feel more like a corporate video than an agent of change. Pascification through slick aesthetics. Use of talking heads like Paul Mason and Green Party Canada ex-leader Elizabeth May tips the hat to how radical this really is. BP boss John Brown is looked at as saintly. Joseph Stieglitz and Robert Riech and other establishment figures only tell us what we already know. I screamed aloud when Tony Blair came on screen — thank goodness I wasn’t in a cinema. The film brings us right up to the pandemic, with many of the interviews completed via video chat. There are nifty recent examples of corporate benevolence like a pandemic Amazon ad featuring a child smiling at a masked delivery driver, which do make the film feel more useful.
It’s hard not to think of Michael Moore in the broad, plain-speaking presentation of the various characters and players involved. And like Moore, The New Corporation returns to Detroit, that emblematic city of failed American industry. But like so many of the subjects here, Detroit is used as a mere case study, when it could prove more effective and microcosmic to look at just one individual institution for their failings and corruption. The section on Bridge International Academies, a for-profit school system in Africa that is privatizing education and turning untrained teachers into robots, is terrifying and compelling, It also tells viewers more about the nature of business than any of the rote ‘Trump-bad-big-tech-eating-away-at-democracy’ talking points that the film feels necessary to relitigate. For all of Moore’s didacticism, when he weaves disparate threads together they at least feel fresh.
It’s not that this film shouldn’t exist, just that the lite activism stories that fill up Instagram feeds are seen by millions more people than this film will probably reach, and it has the same effect of angering, but only as far as your brain can handle the assault of images and stories. As a holistic view, it spins an intriguing yarn, but a more issue-specific doc might have the detail to really inspire act.