But today's documentaries aren't content just to make you think. They want you to act: to vote, to protest, to change your way of living.
The new breed of agit-propumentaries, like Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me, Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 and now The Corporation, combine some of the features of traditional documentaries: the talking heads, the physical evidence, the news clips. But something has clearly changed.
These new films make no bones about where they stand. In a nutshell, McDonald's, George Bush and America's malfeasant, socially irresponsible corporate empire must be stopped. And it's virtually impossible not to be convinced that dramatic change is required after the nonstop assault of these films.
The Corporation is one of the most insidiously disturbing documentaries in the recent windfall of films for the blame it places on the American philosophy of profit for the erosion of national values and morality. This is illustrated by the commodities trader who recounts how Sept. 11 and the Iraq War meant big profits for eager Wall Streeters.
Unlike Moore, who finds wackiness in post-Sept. 11 profiteers selling mini-parachutes for evacuating burning high rises, filmmakers Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott and Joel Bakan find little to laugh about in The Corporation.
Using a female narrator to counter corporate machismo, The Corporation deftly charts the history of the corporation from the 1700s to today. The film shows how what was once a simple business enterprise has come to function as a kind of religion, covert government and ideology. Large conceptual shifts are nimbly introduced and then their ramifications demonstrated -- like how the ancient perception of the public "commons" owned by no one but God has given way to the concept that everything, from such assumedly "common" resources as water, air and land, are now privately owned.
For every paranoid "lefty" conspiracy introduced in The Corporation, there is the real-life corollary, like the American corporation that made a bid to own Bolivia's water supply (including rainfall) until the citizens resisted, or the biotech companies working to bar code genes.
Some familiar monsters emerge, like Monsanto, which gave us Agent Orange in the '60s and is now applying its chemical "expertise" to dairy cows. For the prosecution, the filmmakers call Noam Chomsky, a legion of Ivy League business school professors, Howard Zinn and a surprisingly subdued Moore. Most have been addressing the loss of personal liberty and justice with the rise in corporate power for decades, and their arguments are as persuasive as ever.
Burrowing into the belly of the beast, The Corporation suggests that corporations are, by design, built for a lack of accountability. Everyone from workers to CEOs see themselves as mere cogs in the machine and therefore not responsible for what their company creates or destroys. The corporate structure so effectively spreads blame around, no one individual need feel guilty for the actions of his or her employer, like the chairman of Goodyear who claims his moral conscience is crippled by allegiance to the stockholders' bottom line.
But the most devastating aspect of this highly entertaining, rigorously argued film is how it spreads the blame around, making monsters of many complicit in corporate harm. We are all, after all, wasteful, consumption-mad citizens of the First World's biggest corporation, the United States, which exploits the resources and governments of foreign nations in our interest. The Corporation is a mind-expanding maxi-downer about individual culpability for the world's problems.