Movies We Like
Fast Food Nation
It stands to reason that if you can get people to eat s*** and like it you can pretty much get away with anything. This is the sentiment I took away from Eric Schlosser's devastating expose of the fast food industry, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of The American Meal (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001). The book was compared to Upton Sinclair's The Jungle for its gritty glimpse into an industry that has a stranglehold over our agriculture, our declining health, and our government. (And he really does point out that because of the American beef industry's dedication to doing things as cheaply as possible sometimes feces make their way into hamburger patties. Seriously.) Eric Schlosser connected the dots as to why fast food is so cheap and omnipresent and what he discovered was a vast system of interrelated factors that have been set up to dominate and degrade almost every aspect of our society - from the disgusting ways in which cattle are treated, to the exploitation of undocumented workers, to the disease and obesity epidemics currently plaguing this country. Schlosser wrote the definitive account of why American ideals are so compromised by the dominance of fast food culture. Making a documentary based on the book seemed to be the most logical way to visually depict Schlosser's investigative findings but director Richard Linklater had a different approach. Instead of filming Fast Food Nation as a muckraking documentary he uses the general narrative structure of Steven Soderbergh's ensemble film about the international drug trade, Traffic, as a device for exploring the business of fast food and its negative effects on all of us from multiple viewpoints.
The film follows lots of different characters caught up within their own troubling relationship to fast food production. Greg Kinnear plays an executive for a fast food chain called Mickey's. We follow him as he meets different people affiliated with the hamburger chain. He's shocked when he's told by his superior that they have worries about public outcry over their product. "There's shit in the meat," he says. He talks to scientists paid by Mickey's to craft the taste of liquid smoke in test tubes. He meets the kids who work at a Mickey's in Colorado. A young idealist named Amber (Ashley Johnson) working at Mickey's after school starts to realize that she doesn't want to be a part of what Mickey's is selling. Bruce Willis has a cameo as a cynical meat processing plant owner who warns Kinnear's character about sticking his nose in their business when he hears rumors about mistreatment of workers at the plant. We follow the experiences of Mexicans who crossed the border illegally into Colorado and work in the factory who are taken advantage of at every turn. Some turn to drugs to cope with the long hours and brutal work. Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, and even Avril Lavigne pop up in different roles. Amber meets up with a group of college students determined to raise public consciousness about fast food's toll on the environment but have their illusions shattered when they see it's more complicated than they realized.
In the hands of almost any other director I can think of Fast Food Nation could have come across as a finger wagging, big Hollywood, liberal rant that would have almost certainly been condescending and terrible. (Imagine if Oliver Stone directed the film as a conspiracy-filled thriller featuring Gwenyth Paltrow and Luke Wilson as sexy farmers who are on the run from corporate America for speaking out about how bad chicken McNuggets are and why it's so important to shop at Whole Foods. I think I can say with some certainty that such a movie would be the worst movie in the world.) But Richard Linklater is the perfect person to take on a story like this. He understands the kids in the film. He gives them at times overly worded dialogue lifted straight from the talking points of the book, but no one has a better feel for the natural rhythms of conversation among the young and slackerish. As innately political as the film is it has a meditative, melancholic quality. He believes in Amber and her cause, even as he depicts what we've lost to our corporate overlords and their congressional lackeys and what Amber and her friends are up against. The last scene is documentary footage of cattle being led through the process of slaughter. The coldness and efficiency of the entire enterprise is shocking even if you are expecting it to be really gross. The impression we're left with is that fast food culture is degrading to everyone be they cow, factory worker, or Mickey's executive alike.