Thursday, December 21, 2006

Movie Review: Fast Food Nation

Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation was on the early side of the current boom in food books. Published in 2001, it described in sometimes gruesome detail the process by which cows, corn, soybeans, wheat and potatoes get turned into Happy Meals. The New York Times said "Not only will it make you think twice before eating your next hamburger … it will also make you think about the fallout that the fast food industry has had on the social and cultural landscape."

The book has been loosely adapted into a film by Richard Linklater, the director of character-driven dialogue-heavy films like Slacker, Dazed and Confused, and Before Sunrise, as well as School of Rock (which disappointed me) and the Bad News Bears remake (which disappointed nearly everyone). I, along with R., saw the film a couple of weeks ago. While the book was a non-fiction expose without a plot, the adapted film is fiction, with, if not a plot, at least characters who make choices and face difficult situations. It's an interesting combination of fairly heavy-handed criticism of the industrial meatpacking industry and Linklater's witty realistic conversations among his characters.

At its core, the criticism of industrial meatpacking in the movie is focused on one issue -- that the production line moves to fast and sanitary conditions can't be preserved. Personally, although that's certainly an issue, it's not one that's very controversial. The FDA doesn't like bacteria on the meat any more than consumers do, and companies in this age of lightning-fast dissemination of news have pretty good economic incentives to treat their product with care. Their employees and their suppliers are a different matter, and here the film takes a more hedged stance, showing both the pros and cons of being an undocumented worker in the industry. Other issues are noted briefly, including land use and the treatment of cattle on the range, but the major criticisms are leveled against the plants where cattle are slaughtered and the meat processed. And much of the film was about the characters involved -- immigrant workers, fast-food-assembling teenagers, an inspector for a burger company, a rancher, and others.

In general I liked the movie. Although preachy in some ways, at other times it went out of its way not to take the easy road. Characters make bad choices sometimes, and... nothing happens. Refreshing, and it rescues the film from being more moralistic than it needs to be.

There were many aspects of the book that the movie did not address. The agricultural effects of fast food were not covered (but see Omnivore's Dilemma for a comprehensive take), and some of the remarkable innovations in the fast food industry were also not shown. In particular, the amazing robotic french-fry makers that peel and quality-check potatoes before firing them at high speed through razor wire to make fries, now that I would have loved to see!

Two other notes. First, the movie has some gruesome moments, although the director is to be commended for working the audience up to seeing them, rather than shocking us right at the beginning. And second, my viewing companion had a totally different view of the film, describing it as boring and aggressively preachy.

For myself, though, I give it three out of four lamb chops.


At 3:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I suspect that the whole issue won't have enough popularity, as no society want to see its vices denounced.

At 6:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

just watched Fast Food Nation, it's impactful to say the least... earlier today i passed up a sausage mcmuffin because of it.


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