I don’t remember a negative discourse about fast food growing up, certainly not one approaching the campaigns about the “evils” of smoking. Then, in 2001, journalist Eric Schlosser wrote “Fast Food Nation.” Though I’ve never read the book, I recall hearing about the impact it would have on my friends who did, it making them aware of all the things they didn’t really want to know when they ordered their “Large No. 4 with a Coke.” The scope of the book, reflecting the scope of the fast food industry, is vast, exploring far beyond the countertops at restaurants, from the boardrooms of major corporations to the killing floors of the meat packing industry.
In 2004, independent documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock made “Super Size Me,” the saga of his month-long quest to eat every meal at McDonalds. It quickly propelled itself into the mainstream, even in the everyday conversations of the people who hadn’t seen it. Though it seems really obvious now, it was a little bit shocking to see just how poor Spurlock’s bill of health became after his 30-day McDonald’s marathon.
Now, Schlosser has taken his source material, and under the direction of charmed writer/filmmaker Richard Linklater, turned “Fast Food Nation” into a movie. The film, shot not as a documentary as might be expected, but series of interwoven dramatic narratives, has storylines that brings all the various aspects of the fast food industry together in a fictional Colorado town.
The issue is still relevant, despite the changes we’ve seen in ostensibly healthier fast food menus with nutrition facts on hand in response to the consumer demand that was surely influenced by Schlosser and Spurlock. What’s important to keep considering are the parts of the supply chain we don’t see.
“The fundamental working of the systems are unchanged,” Schlosser said in an interview. “To the degree that they offer any healthy things on the menu, that’s great. To the degree they have any environmental consciousness, that’s great. They’ve tried to push for animal welfare, and I think it’s had an impact, but these are not profound changes. The system is running as it was…In terms of the treatment of meat packing workers, and in terms of the meat packing industry’s control over food safety regulations, it’s actually gotten worse.”
This is exactly the portrait painted in the film. The concurrent storylines of “Fast Food Nation” (Fox Searchlight) find an advertising wiz (Greg Kinnear, “The Matador”) for a burger chain visiting the town where the meat patties are produced, taking meals at his own fast food chain, “Mickey’s” (subtle irony later pointed out by Richard Linklater: “I would love to see the people at the top of the fast food industry, if they had to feed their own families their own menu.” Now he can). Mickey’s is where we meet Amber (Ashley Johnson, “Growing Pains”), an employee who starts questioning the system she’s a part of after speaking with her progressive Uncle Pete (played by Linklater’s go-to guy Ethan Hawke) and meeting some activists at the local college (among them, Avril Lavigne). The most dramatic storyline involves illegal immigrants, freshly across the border and finding work at the exploitative, dangerous, and downright nasty meat packing plant. Lost limbs, drug addiction and abusive managers make this storyline a sobering complement to the sometimes light-hearted nature of the other two.
There are a lot of famous actors appearing in this film, including Bruce Willis, Patricia Arquette and Kris Kristofferson. But this expensive-looking cast was not compensated in their normal way, making it possible for the film to be made on the shoestring budget financed completely independently until Fox Searchlight signed on for distribution. Even with a cast willing to work on the cheap, getting this film made was not without its struggles against the Man.
The system, Schlosser acknowledged, “is a set of attitudes that realizes, ‘Hey, here’s a company with 30 billion dollars in revenues that we’re in business with and, here’s some guy who wants to trash that company. Whose relationship is more important to us?'”
But if you ask Linklater, making a statement about societal ills like “Fast Food Nation” does is more than breaking through corporate opinion. “The things that really matter in your life, your health, your food, things that affect your wages.there is no room to really analyze that, but we all can analyze TV shows, movies, pop culture, sports.It’s a funny impulse, but it keeps us all accepting these things as inevitable…Nobody wants to be told facts that are unsettling.I’d rather be entertained, wouldn’t you?”
If that’s true for you too, you might want to look through some of Linklater’s back catalogue, because “Fast Food Nation,” is less entertaining than it is very preachy, with lots of awkward dialogue, and a disturbing finale reminiscent of a PETA snuff film. Linklater surprisingly declared himself a libertarian during the interview, but I don’t think a libertarian could have made this film. The film is evidence of the important role the media must play, but the paternalistic stance this film takes on the fast food issue will always be criticized for failing to address the issue of personal choice.
Political semantics aside, the movement for a healthier society seems to be making strides, and that is of course a good thing. “The thing that I find encouraging,” said Schlosser, “isn’t any change in the system, it’s truly a counterculture that has grown, a culture around food that is totally opposite to this fast food system, that is spreading incredibly among educated and upper middle class people.” Thus, the makers of “Fast Food Nation” honestly believe in their duty to look out for the little guy, the people who truly do, for lack of other options, suffer at the hands of the fast food industry. So if you believe as they do, you should probably go see it.
“Fast Food Nation” arrives in theaters on Friday, Nov. 17.