Enter Market Basket, the movie
If it’s a feel-good souvenir of last year’s Market Basket stand-off you’re looking for, “We the People: The Market Basket Effect” delivers in spades. As an unbiased documentary about a unique story of business and community, it’s rather less successful. The filmmakers have made this for the purposes of near-term celebration rather than long-term understanding, and they’re probably judging their audience well.
(The film opens today for a run at the Somerville Theatre and at various movie houses in New England. A second film on the subject, “Food Fight: Inside the Battle for Market Basket,” gets an early look at the Boston International Film Festival on Friday and Saturday.)
Besides, who doesn’t want to rally around the flag of Arthur T. Demoulas, his employees, and the loyal customers who boycotted Market Basket grocery stores after the CEO was ousted in a board coup led by — boo, hiss cues the movie — his cousin, Arthur S. Demoulas. Frank Capra movies rarely come this well-cast and with such a happy denouement: The little guys won, and even if the $1.5 billion debt incurred by Arthur T. in getting his company back could still impact the chain’s bottom line despite robust recent business, well, the little guys won.
Produced by the New York-based NBTV Studios, “We the People” was written by Jeff Pinilla, directed by Tommy Reid, and features gruff, sympathetic narration by actor Michael Chiklis, a son of Lowell, where Market Basket was born. One of the producers and talking heads is Ted Leonsis, a former AOL executive and another Lowell kid. Local pride is key to this movie and to this story; it was the pitting of Arthur T. and his rank-and-file employees versus the outsider co-CEOs imported by the board that fired up the resistance and dug in everyone’s heels.
To its credit, “We the People” reaches way back in the family fortunes to explain how a Greek immigrant named Athanasios Demoulas rose from Lowell’s working class “Acre” to pass on to his sons, George and Telemachus, a.k.a. “Mike,” not only a grocery business but a philosophy of customer and employee relations. The film is fuzzy about what happened after George died and Mike took the reins, but it has its hands full detailing the family tensions and lawsuits of the 1990s and 2000s, as CEO Arthur T. — Mike’s son — built a concern founded on low prices and worker good will. The way the movie tells it, the board of Class A shareholders led by Arthur S. — George’s son — fumed as they saw profits get plowed into bonuses and capital improvements.
It almost looked like functional socialism, but it was really capitalism with a conscience, an increasing rarity in a corporate landscape dominated by 1 percent thinking. When Arthur T. was fired in June 2014, the outpouring of rage was fueled as much by nostalgia for a vanishing America as by employee and customer loyalty. “We the People” reflects this without really exploring it, through interviews with longtime Market Basket workers, devoted shoppers (who went elsewhere during the strike and spent hard-earned cash to make their point), business professors in the Boston area, New Hampshire governor Maggie Hassan, and reporters for local newspapers and media outlets. (Several Boston Globe journalists are on hand.)
Still, there isn’t much here that you couldn’t have learned by reading the news coverage. (Was there any truth to the board’s charges that Arthur T. unethically profited from Market Basket real estate transactions? The movie doesn’t go there.) Most crucially, no one in the company’s inner circle is willing to go on record about what happened: Arthur S. didn’t respond to requests for interviews, and Arthur T. appears to have been sandbagged by the filmmakers for only one brief, calorie-free soundbite in the parking lot of the company’s Tewksbury headquarters. He seems like a genuinely good man, but he ain’t talking, and “We the People” is poorer for it.
Instead, the filmmakers pour on the syrup, and what’s a fine and moving tale of people fighting to hold on to a symbol of working-class decency — not to mention a demonstration of the power of social media in upending corporate domination — teeters on the edge of bathos. When Arthur T.’s bid to buy back his company is accepted in August 2014, we don’t really need to hear a full-throated rendition of “America the Beautiful” on the soundtrack. But we get it anyway.
It’s tough to criticize the movie without appearing to judge the events and people in it, so let’s just say that “We the People” is skilled at returning a viewer to the delirious contact high of mid-2014. Fifty years from now, they’ll watch this movie not to understand what happened but to know what it felt like.
We the People: The Market Basket Effect
Directed by Tommy Reid. Written by Jeff Pinilla. Narrated by Michael Chiklis. At the Somerville Theatre. 76 minutes. Unrated (as G).