There was an advance screening of "Fast Food Nation" at UC Berkeley last week, followed by a freeform discussion with food detectives Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan. Because Pollan teaches journalism at Berkeley, I got to cover the post-screening chat for work, which to me is almost as great as getting paid to eat cheese.
I couldn't really talk about the film in that piece, so here's my review.
"Fast Food Nation," which will be released in the U.S. in a few weeks, is not a documentary but a dramatic adaptation of Schlosser's 2001 masterpiece of investigative journalism. He cowrote the screenplay with director Richard Linklater, whose work I generally admire (and in the case of "Before Sunset" and its precursor, adore). Schlosser said he met with and rejected many documentary filmmakers before going with Linklater.
Unfortunately — because I really, really wanted to love it — I think "Fast Food Nation" the film is ultimately unsatisfying, both as a standalone dramatic work and as an information-delivery vehicle.
The loose storyline is as follows: Clean-cut family-man Don Henderson (Greg Kinnear), an executive at a fictional fast-food chain called Mickey's Burgers, is dispatched to Colorado to find out why their fecal coliform levels are off the charts, i.e., why so much shit is ending up in the meat. The source of the problem is Uniglobe Meat Packing, the supplier of the meat for Mickey's best-selling Big One. The film introduces us to the apathetic teenage employees of the local Mickey's, plus their friends and families; to the Mexican immigrants that cross the border illegally and have no choice but to work at the meat-packing plant; and to the various managers, middlemen, and executives who exploit both groups without qualms.
The cast is enormous and for the most part, excellent. It's studded with big-name actors: Bruce Willis playing a corrupt meat supplier; Patricia Arquette as the pet-store uniform-wearing mother of Amber (Ashley Johnson), who's the closest thing the film has to a protagonist; and Ethan Hawke as Amber's cynical uncle.
Kris Kristofferson plays an old-time cattle rancher, who channels Schlosser with such lines as, "It's not about good people or bad people. It's about the great big machine that's taking over this country" ‚ and ruining it, all in the quest for ever more "pennies a pound."
But the true stars of the film are the immigrants who find themselves working in the circle of hell that is Uniglobe's meat-packing plant. How they got to America, and the degradation they experience once there, are as much a part of the film as the fast food itself.
Bobby Cannavale, to date mostly a TV actor, is completely scary as a sociopathic cobra of a meatpacking supervisor. Catalina Sandino Moreno, best known for her role in last year's indie drug-trafficking hit "Maria Full of Grace," also turns in an unforgettable performance. Her character Sylvia is the double of Amber. While Amber wears a polyester uniform to sell Big Ones from behind the counter, Sylvia dons first a maid's uniform then later, a chain-mesh apron and more to gut cattle in the assembly line. The implication is that to the system, she is just another piece of meat.
There is one stomach-churning sequence of actual cattle slaughter that I won't be getting out of my mind anytime soon. It wasn't about animal abuse — that is, above and beyond what's considered normal — it just showed the whole killing and butchering process, from terrified animals in the chute to blood gushing from throats to legs being cut off with a chain saw. Yeah. Really. Some people in the audience fled. I hope the person who brought the toddler to this movie is prepared to pay for the girl's therapy later.
I wanted more than anything to cover my eyes and ears but I would not let myself. Masochist? Nah — if I'm going to eat beef, I have to accept how the steak got on my plate. Which is essentially what Schlosser, who also still eats meat, said afterward.
What makes the slaughter sequence all the more chilling and somewhat misleading is that it was actually shot in a Mexican slaughterhouse that was much cleaner than typical American ones, one that handles a fraction of the U.S. average number of animals at a fraction of the speed. I agree with Meloukhia over at This Ain't Livin' — who I was excited to meet in person finally — that this misperception creates a major problem for the film.
But to me, its biggest problem is that the majority of the characters seemed like ideas that had been given legs and very little else. Amber ("The Idealist") falls in with some college students who want to protest what UMP's cattle feedlots are doing to the environment (including "the Anarchist" and "The Goody Two Shoes Leader"). While we're meant to laugh at their self-important, high-minded rhetoric, they just seem so two-dimensional — as does Amber's uncle, the Ex-Rebel, who exhorts her to get out of town with no babies before she's 21.
Ultimately, the film is true to the heart of Schlosser's book: the fast food industry's dependence on cheap, interchangeable employees who are both unlikely and unable to protest their exploitation. Yet by excising most of the historical, political, and economic contexts limned in such impressive detail in the book, the result is more of a mash-up between "Slackers" and "Roger & Me." I worry that audience members unfamiliar with the film's origins will end up caring about neither the characters nor the social criticism they embody.
Schlosser's and Linklater's point seems to be that there's no use in demonizing individuals — the people making the decisions to accept shit in our food and industrial practices with 10% accident rates are no different from you or me. It's the system that's to blame.
And therefore it's the system that must be changed: corporations must be held accountable for the costs they pass on to their workers, consumers, and the communities in which they operate. But that's my own conclusion, one I already held going in to the movie. Throughout the film, I — and I know others in the audience at Berkeley, birthplace of the Free Speech Movement — found myself wishing for a Mario Savio character, someone to voice the equivalent of his famous speech on the steps of Sproul Hall:
There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part; you can't even passively take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!
There's nothing like that in "Fast Food Nation" to inspire us even for a moment, no character who seems likely to escape the machine. (One, in fact, is literally chewed up by it.) The rancher played by Kristofferson is resigned to being among the last of his kind. Even the activist college students, inspired by Amber to "liberate" some feedlot cows, end up looking ridiculous for their naivete.
Schlosser said he and Linklater deliberately avoided the "climb up on the tables and call for a union" rallying speech. "To have suggested a happy ending would have been a lie, given what's happening in this country," he told Pollan afterward.
True. But given what's happening in this country, I wish the film had done more to suggest to people that their actions could have any effect at all.
Fox Searchlight's rather excellent, slick website for the film — from whence the above poster and stills came — has a banner for "Participate: Social action, get involved," that takes you to Participate.net, a netroots project of the company that also made Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth." There, if you follow the links for "Fast Food Nation" you'll find a site that offers ways people can push for change.
I'm just afraid the movie won't inspire viewers to look for it.