Review by Rob Williams:
You are not a clone, so why shop at one, or for that matter BE one?
"The High Cost of Low Prices"
A film by Robert Greenwald
The Wal-Martization of America:
Uncovering the High Cost of Low Price
As a history teacher for two decades now, the single best field trip I"ve ever taken with
students involved a visit to a "local" Wal-Mart in Albuquerque, New Mexico. During the
1990s, when I lived and taught in the urban desert, the Duke City served as a prime example of
urban sprawl run amuck, with box store chains routinely popping up on every corner like
mushrooms after a late summer rain. As part of our exploration of late 20th century
globalization, my sophomores and I decided we'd take an official tour of Wal-Mart. We'd been
reading essays fairly critical of the Bentonville-based company, so we decided we"d get the
official Wal-Mart party line straight from the horse"s mouth. After calling the store to set
up a visit, we walked across the mesa to have a look inside the world"s largest corporation.
Suffice to say, our two-hour visit in Wal-Mart, escorted around by the store"s friendly (and
honest) manager, answered many of our questions, raised others, and, most importantly, opened
our eyes to the realities of corporate retail in modern America. "Do all Wal-Mart employees
really do a Wal-Mart cheer at the beginning of each work day?
" asked one of my unbelieving
students. "We do," one employee sheepishly admitted, and then proceeded to perform the
rather embarrassing number with her fellow "associates." "You kids be sure to stay in
school and finish your education," admonished another "associate" taking a brief break in
the store lounge. "You don"t want to end up working in retail like me."
Think of Robert Greenwald"s powerful new film "Wal-Mart: The High Cost Of Low Price" as one
giant field trip across the United States at a time when corporate multinational retail box
store power dominates the landscape. Anyone with even a passing interest in matters economic
knows a bit about Wal-Mart"s rap sheet, as well as the lure of "low prices ^?ways." But
Greenwald"s film does an admirable job of both contextualizing and personalizing the wide
variety of trade offs Americans have made in allowing Wal-Mart to own and operate the very
fabric of our 21st century economy.
The film is full of moments of heartache that resonate - long-time family-owned and operated
businesses driven into the ground by the aggressive Wal-Martization of Anywhere, USA. In one
poignant scene at film"s beginning, we see, in slow motion, a sepia-toned Stars and Stripes
fluttering against Bruce Springsteen"s haunting crooning of Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is
Your Land," sung over a depressing picture that is all too familiar: dilapidated and
boarded-up down town Main Streets across America, driven out of business by the economic clout
of giant corporate power, wielding more efficient economies of scale, as well as aggressive
(and many would say ruthless and corrupt) business tactics.
In assembling his new film, Greenwald makes two shrewd tactical decisions that pay off in
spades by film"s end. The first involves his decision to give voice to the voice-less. Those
familiar with Greenwald"s previous films - "Uncovered: The Whole Truth About The Iraq War,"
for example - know of his interest in capturing powerful voices on camera, authority figures
from inside the corridors of power who know how the System works and aren"t afraid to speak
honestly about abuse and injustice. Surprisingly, in "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price,^"
the viewer doesn"t encounter a single Ph.D.-sporting talking head.
Instead, Greenwald introduces us to ordinary Americans, struggling to make sense of a billion
dollar multinational corporation that consistently says one thing and does another, displaying
an arrogance and an eye-opening set of double-standards that could fill volumes. Many of these
folks are dyed-in-the-whole small town conservatives, rock-ribbed Republicans (in the
traditional sense of the term) who believe in the power of hard work, sacrifice,
entrepreneurialism, and a sense of fair play that, once upon a time, made the U.S. economy the
envy of the world. The film also interviews a number of former Wal-Mart employees, many of
them upper level managers, who speak candidly about the corporation"s deeply rooted sense of
foul play, amoral behavior, and unethical business practices. Hearing their celluloid
confessions is enough to make any CEO squirm.
Greenwald"s second tactical decision in telling his story involves brilliant use of
rhetorical jujitsu, as he leverages the multi-billion dollar juggernaut of Wal-Mart's
advertising and public relations (PR) power against itself. We see, for example, Wal-Mart CEO
Lee Scott at a national company rally, claiming that his corporation provides well-paying jobs
with retirement benefits and a host of other perks. Then we meet Wal-Mart workers who simply
cannot make ends meet, no matter how hard they try, backed up by sobering statistics pointing
out that, while CEO Scott pulled in a $27 million salary last year and the five members of the
Walton family are worth more than $102 billion (with a "b," yes), the average full time
Wal-Mart employee (FT defined as a mere 28 hours a week by Wal-Mart"s reckoning) earned under
$14,000 during 2004.
In this way, Greenwald"s new film is as much a study in the propagandistic power of corporate
public relations and advertising as it is a meditation on Wal-Mart's deliberate bleeding of
the U.S. economy to enrich the pockets of its shareholders. The shiny happy people featured in
Wal-Mart advertisements, as well as the company's continued PR claims of corporate
responsibility ("We at Wal-Mart take an active interest in conserving the environment!"),
simply doesn"t match the frustrating reality of their corporate behavior. Even the largely
toothless Environmental Protection Agency, for example, a federal regulatory outfit that
sometimes seems to exist simply to provide permits for giant corporate polluters, has managed
to prosecute Wal-Mart for Clean Air Act violations in nine states, due to the company's
stubborn insistence on storing lawn fertilizer and other toxic chemicals in parking lots
located near local watershed areas.
Greenwald even takes us to Wal-Mart"s global factories in China, Honduras, and Bangladesh,
where Wal-Mart workers put in 14 hour days 7 days a week and brush their teeth with fireplace
ashes because their salaries don't allow them to buy tooth paste. Implicitly in this global
tour is the fact that, while wrapping itself in the American flag and a shallow sham version
of patriotism, Wal-Mart cares very little for the health and well being of its workers, the
environment, or the health of the U.S. economy as a whole, beyond the short-term dollar value
it can extract to increase its profit margin.
While all of this is deeply sobering, Greenwald wisely chooses to end the film on a powerful
high note, spotlighting and interviewing several citizen/activists " normal people just like
you and me" who have chosen to organize their communities to oppose Wal-Mart's predatory
behavior and fight for more just and sustainable local economies.
And that hope is this filmic field trip"s ultimate message. Don't believe Wal-Mart's hype.
Educate others. Speak out. Organize. As consumers, as workers, as citizens, as elected
officials, all of us make daily decisions that perpetuate or undermine Wal-Mart"s (and other
large multinational corporations) existence in our communities.
Let us choose wisely. Our economic future is at stake.
Contact Mad River Valley historian, media educator, and musician Rob Williams at