For his latest documentary indictment, “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price,” director Robert Greenwald has interviewed every imaginable type of person associated with the world’s largest retailer.
Former employees recount being forced to work unpaid overtime and seeking government assistance because they couldn’t afford Wal-Mart’s health insurance. Former managers describe how they systematically quashed attempts at union organization. Longtime small-town store owners discuss the devastation of shutting their doors after a Wal-Mart lures away business. Even a customer tearfully shares details of her carjacking in a Wal-Mart parking lot — which was captured on security cameras that no one was bothering to watch.
The one person Greenwald does not include? Anyone from Wal-Mart itself.
Chief Executive Lee Scott appears in news footage and at meetings of store employees, simultaneously serving as cheerleader and defender; at the film’s start, Scott is greeted like a rock star as he takes the stage and urges his minions to “Tell the Wal-Mart story.”
But according to the film’s press materials, the company wouldn’t tell its story, or at least its side of the story, to Greenwald. Officials refused to respond to his interview requests — a fact he fails to mention even in a cursory way here.
There is no great Michael Moore moment of confrontation, no climax. As a result, the film feels like a well-researched but ultimately dull (and often poorly produced) parade of talking heads.
It is incredibly timely, though. Every day it feels like there’s some news item about Wal-Mart scrambling to improve its battered image with a revamped health-care program or an initiative become more environmentally friendly.
And Greenwald and his team obviously busted their butts gathering all this footage and data and culling hundreds of hours of interviews with real people — people who’d dedicated their lives to the company, who struggle to feed their families, who get choked up just because they’re proud to be an American.
But without any on-camera attempt to obtain a response from Wal-Mart — without even a whiff of the thrill of the hunt — it all feels incomplete.
Moore’s entire raison d’etre is walking up the long driveway to Charlton Heston’s house to interrogate the National Rifle Association president about gun violence in “Bowling for Columbine,” or chasing General Motors CEO Roger Smith in “Roger & Me,” which is clearly the prototype for “Wal-Mart.”
Even Morgan Spurlock taped himself calling McDonald’s officials 15 times — and never getting a call back — in “Super Size Me.” The tactic may seem showy or self-serving, but it does have a certain built-in suspense.
Greenwald similarly failed to question anyone on camera — or even to show that he tried to do so — in his critical Fox News Channel documentary “Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism.” The film consisted of copious news clips, interviews with former employees and commentary from media experts (including Walter Cronkite), but nary a fresh peep from Roger Ailes or Murdoch themselves.
Not exactly fair and balanced.