Robert Greenwald's career refutes F. Scott Fitzgerald's famous contention that there are no second acts in American lives. After wracking up a long list of credits in television and film as a director and producer, Greenwald successfully reinvented himself as a crusading, muckraking documentarian, a camera-toting leftie David taking on malevolent right-wing Goliaths like Fox News and The Bush administration. Through savvy grassroots tactics and canny use of the Internet, Greenwald has managed to transform films like Outfoxed and the new anti-chain store jeremiad Wal-Mart: The High Cost Of Low Price into bona-fide pop-culture events, fusing politics, propaganda, activism, and cinema.
As with his previous docs, Greenwald builds his case slowly in Wal-Mart, supporting his thesis that Wal-Mart is bad for America with both strong anecdotal evidence and a blizzard of damning statistics. Structurally, the film plays off a speech delivered by a top Wal-Mart executive to his cheering charges, contrasting the Wal-Mart kingpin's sunny claims that the company is good for the environment, its employees, and the world with footage making antithetical claims. As with Outfoxed and Greenwald's Iraq War film Uncovered, Wal-Mart prominently features people who've worked long and hard within the system they're now attacking, clean-cut all-American types, even conservatives and members of the clergy. The implication seems to be that the folks opposing Wal-Mart are not the bomb-throwing Marxists and tattooed, heavily pierced professional activists of the public's imagination, but jus' plain folk like the viewing audience. Sometimes Greenwald leans too heavily on the Rockwellian folksiness, setting scenes of small-town businessmen being wholesome and non-corporate to a musical approximation of cornball Americana. Wal-Mart isn't subtle. It's propaganda first and cinema second, an angry condemnation filled with exclamation points both literal and figurative.
After a solid hour and a half of howling the Wal-Mart blues, Greenwald switches into gospel mode—literally as well as figuratively—rapturously celebrating the victories of anti-Wal-Mart forces and rallying the troops to carry on the good fight. Like the rest of the film, the upbeat ending is corny and manipulative yet surprisingly effective. By the end of Wal-Mart, Greenwald has framed the battle against Wal-Mart as nothing less than a fight for a nation's soul. And though it's easy to be skeptical of his heavy-handed tactics, there's something infectious about a documentary with such a stirring sense of purpose that so nakedly aspires to be a bold catalyst to action rather than just mere entertainment.