'The Corporate Coup D'Etat': Film Review

Courtesy of Hot Docs Festival
A horror film of the most realistic kind.

Fred Peabody's documentary examines the ways in which corporate interests increasingly control society.

The title of the new documentary by Fred Peabody (previously responsible for All Governments Lie) pretty much announces what the viewer is in for. Taken from a 1995 lecture by Canadian philosopher John Raulston Saul, it refers to the ever-growing control of our democratic institutions by companies looking out solely for their own interests. Saul had described it as happening in "slow motion," but as The Corporate Coup D'Etat vividly illustrates, the phenomenon has increased rapidly in the age of Trump.  

The film, recently screened at Toronto's Hot Docs, begins with footage of Donald Trump's inauguration featuring a stone-faced Barack and Michelle Obama watching as the president-elect rails about "American carnage." Trump was right, to a point, with that carnage on full display in the doc with segments about Camden, New Jersey, and Youngstown, Ohio. Both are labeled "sacrifice zones," meaning formerly thriving manufacturing centers that have been reduced to urban wastelands. Camden used to be home to companies including RCA Victor (Enrico Caruso is among the many stars who recorded there) and Campbell's Soup, both of which have long since relocated. Youngstown was formerly a major steel manufacturer, but those jobs have been shipped overseas. The film includes interviews with several residents of both places, many of whom pulled the lever for Trump after twice voting for Obama.

They still support the president, giving him points for trying, but they're also under no illusions. "I don't think he drained the swamp, he just moved it into the White House," one former steelworker comments.  

Like many cinematic essays, The Corporate Coup D'Etat lacks focus and makes frequent cheap (but effective) shots, such as the undeniably amusing cutaways between a sneering Mussolini and a similarly visaged Trump. The film certainly doesn't pull its punches, with philosopher Cornel West describing the current chief executive as a "neo-fascist, gangster and a thug." But it doesn't let his predecessors off the hook, either, decrying Ronald Reagan's "trickle-down" economics and the "faux-liberal" Bill Clinton whose legacies include NAFTA, welfare restrictions and a draconian crime bill.

The filmmaker's approach is often academic, such as crediting Mussolini with the concept of corporatism and pointing to important developments like the Powell Memorandum, written in 1971 by future Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell in reaction to Ralph Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed and calling for corporations to become more aggressive in taking control of American politics. Popular culture is woven into the mix, as well, via clips from the famous scene in the 1976 film Network in which Ned Beatty's CEO dresses down a cowering Howard Beale (Peter Finch) with a lecture about how there is no America but rather only corporations such as Union Carbide and Exxon.  

Ultimately, the documentary is more effective in its smaller, personal moments than when it attempts to present elaborate socio-economic arguments. Among the more powerful segments are an interview with a homeless woman who's pitched a tent near a scrapyard and shares what little she has with others in her predicament, and a worker wandering through a foreclosed house still filled with the possessions of its former occupants, including its owner who left a suicide note and hanged himself in the garage. It's those human faces of income inequality that give The Corporate Coup D'Etat its greatest emotional heft.

Production companies: White Pine Pictures, Ventana-Film
Director: Fred Peabody
Producer: Peter Raymont
Executive producers: Peter Raymont, Fred Peabody, Steve Ord, Jeff Cohen, Hans Robert Eisenhauer
Director of photography: John Westheuser
Editor: James Yates
Composer: Michelle Osis
Venue: Hot Docs

90 minutes