Take one look at the state of the world in 2020 and you can understand why The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel exists, overexplanatory title and all. If you’re unaware of the original film, The Corporation came out in 2003 and provided a simple but effective message about the dangers of capitalism. It used the fact that the US legal system defines corporations as people, went over countless examples of the horrible things companies have done in pursuit of profit, and concluded that corporations are psychopaths. The film was a success but, as the “unfortunately necessary” part of the title implies, not successful enough.
The Corporation co-director Jennifer Abbott is back at the helm this time, pairing up with Joel Bakan (who wrote the book the first film is based on) to give viewers a quick summary of what’s happened over the last 17 years. And no amount of talking heads in the film can explain how worse things have gotten than the film itself, which has to add in footage addressing the Coronavirus pandemic (interview subjects are shown both in studio pre-COVID and via webcam in isolation) before providing another update about the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Things are so bad now that even a film documenting what’s going on can’t keep up with the new horrors thrust upon us on a near-daily basis.
Abbott and Bakan try their best to stay up to date, although their film can feel like an extended “Previously on” segment for those more aware of current events. It starts as a direct continuation of the first film, explaining how the 2000s had corporations respond to criticism by painting themselves as socially conscious and moral businesses that weren’t beholden to profits and shareholders. In reality, they continued pursuing a strategy enacted since the years of Reagan and Thatcher: starve the government of revenue by pushing for lower taxes, create despair through austerity, and use the resulting turmoil to push privatization as the solution to a problem of their own making.
For those unfamiliar with the basics, The New Corporation can serve as a decent primer up to a certain point. The structure present in the original film is largely absent here save for a corporate “playbook” that’s dropped not too long after being introduced. It makes sense that this sequel would feel lighter given its smaller scale compared to the original film charting the origin and history of corporations, but what’s shown feels broadened and glossed over, like the Occupy Wall Street movement, whose influence is acknowledged but gets reduced to being described as a “constructive failure.” Abbott and Bakan do make some smart choices in their film like downplaying the role of politicians (who are serving corporate needs regardless of ideology) but prefer to skim the surface here in favor of a bigger appeal.
This approach makes The New Corporation more infotainment than advocacy doc, which is made apparent by a misguided final act that tries to end things on an optimistic note. Using the 2008 recession, Occupy Wall Street, Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential run, and general disdain around the world for the ruling class, Abbott and Balkan point to grassroots campaigns around the world as a symbol for the people taking power back. But within the context of the film, this sense of hope feels more like closure, and their examples imply a natural process occurring where everything will slowly but surely fix itself. It undermines the film’s titular necessity, and shows another case of people using hope to placate rather than inspire.
But Abbott and Balkan are right about the need to shine a light on corporate power, its influence over people, and the difficulty in breaking free from that. Looking at the film’s poster, two names at the top of the credits stand out: the Canadian streaming service Crave (which will distribute the film in Canada) and the Rogers Group of Funds, which provides funding to Canadian productions. Crave is owned by Bell, which along with Rogers make up two of the largest telecommunications companies across Canada, and both exert influence on their government to make sure they can charge consumers some of the highest prices in the world for cell phone service.
So even the anti-corporation documentary needs some corporate help to get made, but this doesn’t make the film compromised or hypocritical. It’s just an unavoidable reality of trying to get one’s film made, and in failing to address these kinds of issues with the urgency it deserves, The New Corporation fails to meet the moment it so desperately wants to be a part of.
The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.