Aspiring muckrakers should be so lucky as to have the same caliber of material writer Eric Schlosser and director Richard Linklater have for their Fast Food Nation.
“There’s s**t in the meat,” an executive at Mickey’s burger chain (a thinly fictionalized McDonald’s) tells his stunned deputy, Don Henderson (Greg Kinnear.) Yet the film charges right into a trap of its own design, and at the end nothing it indicts is as disturbing as it probably should be — including the fecal chuck.
Taken lock, stock, and title from Schlosser’s nonfiction, non-narrative bestseller, the film gives the feel of a documentary that hasn’t come out of the closet. The cast is attractive, but the script hardly notices them. Its camerawork — grim visuals of millions of identical patties issuing from giant steel machines — and its hammy, Jaws-ominous scoring as it zooms on an about-to-be-chomped burger are subconscious cries for grave narration.
Action converges on Cody, Colorado, a big-box exurbian hell that stands in for anyburb U.S.A. Mickey’s sends Henderson on fact-finding trip to inspect their suppliers’ slaughterhouse on the edge of town. The same slaughterhouse that illegal immigrants Raul (Wilmer Valderrama), Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno), and Coco (Ana Claudia Talancón) have just cheated death to start working at. On the town’s main drag, teenaged Amber (Ashley Johnson) is frying away the best years of her life behind the counter of a Mickey’s franchise.
Linklater has an excellent pedigree for these sorts of interlocking characters and plotlines. And rays of insight do poke through — in Henderson’s half-hearted attention to the pay-per-view smut playing in his cookie-cutter motel room. But only intermittently.
Welcome to The Jungle
Comparisons to Upton Sinclair’s 1906 magnum muckraker of a novel The Jungle are irresistible given the subject matter. Sinclair exposé-d the violent filth and pungent corruption of the Chicago meatpacking plants that fed America. And made a resounding difference: The sensational descriptions spurred passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act. Sinclair considered the book a failure nonetheless. It was really a fusillade against the evils of capitalism. A romantic delusion perhaps, but Sinclair wanted to expose the whole freaking system (and bring it down.)
The Jungle’s hero — Jurgis Rudkus, a have-not Lithuanian immigrant — suffers the business end of every social ill that Sinclair could come up with. He’s forced into onerous debt. Poor health care kills his wife. Dangerous infrastructure takes his child. Industrial accidents abound. Every official is corrupt. Tainted meat is just an odor in the milieu. Though, so exhausted is Jurgis’s credibility as a character by the end of the book — he’s flattened into a one-dimensional cardboard cutout by the sheer improbability of all capitalism’s evils consecutively befalling one man — that the vividly described filth just reeks off the page by comparison.
“I aimed for the public’s heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach,” remarked Sinclair, likely ruing what he supposed to be his readers’ moral myopia and bourgeois squeamishness. To his credit he might have been onto something there. Audiences groan when a Mickey’s employee spits on a burger, and keep picking at their popcorn as one of Raul’s coworkers gets his leg caught in a carcass-dragging machine.
Linklater and Schlosser are ardent realists, and eschew the sort of the tidy ending that Sinclair wrote up for Jurgis. The grand romantic muckraking intent is the same. And really, who can blame them? Why pour all your time and passion into an exposé book or movie if all you have as a goal is to change the way the USDA conducts slaughterhouse inspections? That’s kind of small and bureaucratic. You have to think big.
Their passion for discrediting the whole agro-industrial system burdens Fast Food Nation’s incipient characters to a similar end. Damning pages of Schlosser’s book have been cut and paste into dialog boxes. Amber’s amply-shot coworkers exist only to exposit on how dangerous it is for teenagers to work in fast food joints. Don visits Rudy Martin (Kris Kristofferson), a small rancher eking out a living just beyond the city limits, and the audience receives a didactic conversation on the tragedies of urban sprawl and the decline of family farming. Bobby Cannavale plays two social ills in one person: a brutal shift supervisor who sexually abuses all his female subordinates and peddles meth to keep his worn-out employees up to speed.
In a meta-morality play twist, Don disappears abruptly halfway through; deemed no longer worthy of the camera’s attention because of his ambivalence in taking on the powers that be. His spotlight shifts to Amber whose social consciousness has been blooming ever since she fell in with a group of college environmentalists. The group’s plausibility (and watchability) fall in proportion to how far their stilted, sermonizing lines wander from the topic of fast food: to water quality, to corporate campaign contributions, to the awfully earnest line “right now I can’t think of anything more patriotic than to violate the Patriot Act!”
Many will forgive the film’s cinematic weakness. If it’s overreaching and flat, it’s doubtlessly sincere and, after all, tedium isn’t as dangerous as E. coli. To do so demands too little of the world’s greatest entertainment machine, and shrugs off thinking about why muckraking fiction so consistently hits stomachs instead of hearts.
Fast Food Nation trusts its journalistic instincts over its dramatic ones, heaping too much of an expansive agenda onto weak characters and story.
Then again, Hollywood can make purposeful (and watchable) films featuring social and corporate malfeasance. What The Insider, Erin Brockovich, and Traffic have in common (aside from an action-oriented direction and studio vibe that Linklater seems uncomfortable with) is a restrained social ambition. The lead’s struggle is paramount, and stems from a single, matter-of-fact instance of mucky corporate behavior. The villains don’t come out looking quite so bad, but their corruption is believable and the experience is better.
Fast Food Nation is a film with consequences beyond another might-have-been role for Greg Kinnear. As Teddy Roosevelt realized a century ago, though shrill, the muckraking impulse is a fundamentally healthy one for an open society. For the aggregate good, muckrakers cry wolf. When they make starry-eyed, unfocused movies that attack wolves (and bears, and killer bees, and the Patriot Act) their audience’s eyes glaze over. And those eyes will likely stay glazed — dismissively, complacently glazed — the next time they hear the news that there’s something very wrong with their meat.
– Louis Wittig writes from New York.