Once upon a time, the spread of freedom and democracy was measured in the spread of hamburger franchises. Beaming network correspondents would report from places like Moscow or Beijing on how formerly gray and monolithic communist societies had opened their doors to the Golden Arches. This, truly, was freedom’s fruit — man’s inalienable right to two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese and a high-fat diet.
At the time, fast-food franchises were seen — not without reason — to represent America’s entrepreneurial spirit, a capitalist triumph of cheery service, low-priced product and clever branding. They also stood for other, darker things such as union-busting, a deskilled workforce and advertising campaigns that targeted children, but it took a while for these aspects to become as recognizable as the giant butts that their high-calorie diet was creating all over America.
America is now almost the world’s most obese nation (top honor goes to the South Pacific islands) and fast food has been fingered as the primary culprit. From the slow food movement to the documentary “Super Size Me” and New York City’s laws against the use of transfats, the backlash is in full swing. The most influential work in spawning this backlash against fast food chains was journalist Eric Schlosser’s excellent, wide-ranging expose of the industry, “Fast Food Nation.” Published in 2001, the book became a massive best seller, filled with enough disturbing facts to choke a horse.
It revealed that factory-farm cows were fed restaurant-plate waste, dead cats and dogs, and chicken manure; that out of every $1.50 spent on french fries at a fast food outlet, only about 2 cents goes to the farmer who grew the potatoes; that meat-packing plants are fined only $480 for employees’ deaths in unsafe working conditions . . . are you outraged yet? It gets worse.
Schlosser’s book was a wonderful piece of investigative journalism, and one could easily imagine it being made into a killer documentary film. But director Richard Linklater (“A Scanner Darkly,” “School Of Rock”) took the unconventional approach and made a fiction film out of it — an idea put forth to him by Schlosser. Linklater’s a smart guy, and no doubt his thinking was to get Schlosser’s dirt into the most sugar-coated pill possible. Linklater’s film goes down easy like good drama — but it’s loaded with facts and stories from Schlosser’s source.
Linklater is an expert at creating loose, multicharacter, multistory jams that revolve around some clear thematic core — see “Slackers,” “Dazed and Confused,” or “Waking Life” for evidence of that — and he uses the approach to good effect here. He starts the film with one man, Don (Greg Kinnear), a marketing exec at fast-food chain “Mickey’s,” who is tasked by his boss to answer one question: Is there shit in the burgers?
It seems a lab test has detected fecal matter in the chain’s hamburger patties, and Don will have to look into it on the hush-hush. On his journey, he will explore franchise kitchens, meat-packing plants and independent ranches. Spinning off from these locations are several other tales, those of illegal workers from Mexico who work in the meat-packing plants (Catalina Sandino Moreno and Ana Claudia Talancon), high-school students who work part-time in Mickey’s (Ashley Johnson and Paul Dano) and those who hate the place (Avril Lavigne, Lou Taylor Pucci), and a brusque industry spokesman (Bruce Willis) who tells Don, “We all have to eat a little shit from time to time.”
The film offers many views of contemporary America that you will rarely see on a big screen: Illegal workers, a dozen of them, all living in one cramped, flea-bitten motel room; the meat-packing plant manager who hires them, strutting and leering at the women, enjoying his power over undocumented immigrants; an aerial shot of a massive cattle-holding pen, stretching as far as the eye can see; and a final scene on a meat-packing plant’s killing floor, apparently shot guerrilla-style — something you won’t forget anytime soon.
With the exception of Ethan Hawke’s character, the film is remarkably non-preachy, seeking to simply show us how it is, how the industry functions, and how cost-cutting and profit-taking preclude other concerns such as health, safety and dignity. Even Don, the company man who finds the problem but can’t bring himself to pursue it, is shown with some sympathy. He’s as crushed by the system as the illegal immigrants, albeit far better rewarded by it.
Linklater’s last film, “A Scanner Darkly,” had a line taken straight from Philip K. Dick’s source novel where the protagonist muses bleakly about how the United States was becoming “the same McDonaldburger place over and over, like a circular strip that turned past you as you pretended to go somewhere.” This, not “Blade Runner,” was Dick’s real dystopian vision of the future, and “Fast Food Nation” shows us that the future is now. Yes, junk food is bad for your body, but it’s also bad for the body politic. Linklater’s sly film shows us exactly how bad.