The activist documentary, a form that’s finding surprisingly widespread acceptance nowadays, takes on a particularly broad target in Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott’s assault on the power and influence wielded by multi-national corporations in the modern world. In an era when the very names of Halliburton and Enron can release waves of emotion, “The Corporation” should strike a chord with viewers suspicious of the way in which free-market capitalist enterprises have usurped much of the decision-making authority in even supposedly democratic societies, and concerned about how they can use their power without the legal and moral restraints felt by individuals even though they’ve been endowed, by legislation and court action, with a supposed personhood of their own. At nearly two-and-a-half hours, “The Corporation” is long, and especially toward the close it presses to cram everything it wants to cover onto the screen. But despite (or because of) that it’s extremely informative, strongly argued, surprisingly entertaining–and maybe even socially important.

The film begins with a historical introduction outlining the origins of corporations as legal entities, pointing out that at first they were chartered by the government to perform certain functions that were deemed to be in the public interest, ordinarily for a limited time. In 1886, however, a Supreme Court decision, based on the Fourteenth Amendment which had been passed to protect freed slaves, gave corporations the legal status of individuals in terms of property ownership and other rights; unfortunately, it failed to impose concomitant responsibilities and liabilities upon their corporate officers and shareholders. The result was an entity devoted to a single goal of maximizing profit, free of the legal and moral expectations placed upon individuals and capable of more far-reaching, long-lasting actions than any individual would be.

From this point the film goes on to analyze the conduct of corporations, offering comments from authors, scholars, and activists–including such critics as Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn and Michael Moore–but also from corporate managers, advertising researchers, and economists with strong laissez-faire credentials (like Milton Friedman). It then cleverly juxtaposes the findings against the a U.N. “Personality Checklist” that concludes that corporate conduct smacks of psychotic behavior. It’s obvious that all sides in the debate aren’t given equal weight, but against one woman chattering about research she’s done to assist companies to get kids to nag their parents to buy particular products, it also presents a CEO like Ray Anderson, head of carpet manufacturer Interface, who eloquently discusses his own conversion to environmentalism and the strides his company has made in changing its manufacturing procedures. The film also offers provocative illustrations of corporate influence and malfeasance–one of the most effective showing how Monsanto pressured Fox News into killing an investigative report on a potentially harmful chemical designed to increase milk production.

“The Corporation” is based on a book by Joel Bakan titled “The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power,” and its author (with Achbar and Harold Crooks) wrote the script–which helps explain its point of view and its tendency to include as much material as possible. But the very magnitude of the evidence makes a strong case for the premise that in many ways multinationals have eclipsed governments, religions and ideologies in the influence they have over how the world works, and that–given their almost purely economic focus–that is a very dangerous thing. Even if you don’t entirely buy into the argument, to use a capitalist turn of phrase, you should agree that it’s one that we’re fortunate to have put into the marketplace of ideas in so cogent and effective a form.