Eric Schlosser’s 2001 book Fast Food Nation — based on his series of Rolling Stone investigations into the dishonest, unsanitary, dangerous, and sometimes inhuman practices of the fast-food industry and those who provide its raw materials — was a rare book in both how much it illuminated and how many it reached. Aside from Bob Woodward’s biennial publications, few books of investigative journalism make it into the hands of average Americans, yet Schlosser’s exposé became a ubiquitous bestseller; indeed I picked up my copy when I finished my traveling novel early and could find nothing else in the airport bookshop that I wouldn’t be embarrassed to be seen with. It’s gripping reading, both confirming many things we knew or suspected and revealing relatively unknown corporate practices that range from merely unsavory to nigh-homicidal, but it hardly screams “Major Motion Picture.” Schlosser’s tone is engaging, but the book is structured around history lessons, anecdotes, and plain facts; there are plenty of villains but few heroes, and no real narrative connection to much of its material but for Schlosser’s quiet, journalistic presence.
Transforming such a book into a narrative form is never an easy task; adapting those statistics, anecdotes, and historical asides into something resembling a coherent storyline necessitates dropping much that is important or at least interesting and finding or faking associations between facts and incidents with little organic connection. In the face of such an unwieldy task, Schlosser and co-writer/director Richard Linklater have done an admirable job of synthesizing the material into the narrative. This, though, is not to say that the finished product is entirely effective as a film: While they manage both to convey many important facts and to engage in some earnest calls-to-action, the film treatment of Fast Food Nation is often a confusing, frustrating array of ambitions nearly, but not quite, fulfilled.
The first issue in adapting a nonfiction exposé like Schlosser’s is the tremendous amount of exposition required. Four hundred pages of information aren’t easy to cram into a feature film, even a two-hour one, particularly when the obvious (and usual) way to accomplish this is to turn half your characters into pedantic talking heads for long stretches. Linklater and Schlosser avoid this as much as they can, allowing us to directly witness many of the most disturbing aspects of the trip our Big Macs make from the farm to our bellies, but inevitably there are scenes that consist of nothing more than a long speech or two about the evils of Big Food. Most of these are delivered to Greg Kinnear, who plays a marketing executive recently recruited from ESPN to the fictional chain of Mickey’s hamburger joints (an obvious play on the common nickname for McDonald’s). When he’s sent by his boss to investigate reports of fecal contamination in the beef for their top product, Kinnear becomes an unwitting student of the ugly realities of the meatpacking industry.
Visiting Mickey’s beef supplier Uni-Globe Meatpacking, located in an endless strip-mall called Cody, Colorado, Kinnear initially believes the company’s claims of hygiene and safety. They give him a tour of the facility that shows nothing but pristine white rooms full of the most modern, well-maintained machinery, efficiently (and hypnotically) pressing out thousands of identical patties a minute. But a little digging reveals that he’s only seen half the story: He meets a rancher (Kris Kristofferson) who used to sell cattle to Uni-Globe and knows too well how they run their business and whose Chicana housekeeper (Raquel Gavia) bears horrific tales of the killing floor and the carelessness with which meat, innards, and, yes, shit are handled. Kinnear follows this meeting with a visit to a Mickey’s executive vice-president (Bruce Willis) who rationalizes away concerns about cleanliness and safety, explaining that Mickey’s has to make a few compromises to keep their profit margins high and letting Kinnear know that it’s not in his best interest to make a fuss. As the truth is gradually revealed, Kinnear comes off as sincere and reasonably bright, but not especially quick on the uptake, and as such he’s a natural stand-in for the typical middle-class American moviegoer.
Representing an entirely different demographic are Wilmer Valderrama (“That ’70s Show”), Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria Full of Grace), and Ana Claudia Talancón (El Crimen del padre Amaro) as illegal Mexican immigrants come to work in a Colorado meatpacking plant. Their characters leave Mexico in a large group, losing one member in the night desert when they’re almost nabbed by border patrol, that then splits off into small groups for various towns in the western United States and the firms that are willing, even eager to take on illegals. These three also wind up in Cody, waiting in a ramshackle motel to be recruited by Uni-Globe, where they’ll be subjected to English-only training videos that they can’t possibly understand, unsafe working conditions, and sexual harassment by Bobby Cannavale (well, except for Valderrama).
The third major group of characters comes from right inside the local Mickey’s franchise, where we meet a bright, peppy high-school student (Ashley Johnson, best known as little Chrissy Seaver on “Growing Pains”) and her lazy, disgruntled coworkers (Paul Dano and Matt Hensarling). Johnson’s character is the kind of person you hate to see working in fast food, someone who clearly has the potential to do greater things but lacks either the opportunity or the ambition. She represents another group of potential viewers — the young idealists who’ll see this movie or read the book and become card-carrying PETA radicals. This is her trajectory, briefly, as she falls in with a group of student activists at the local college, but ultimately their earnest, misguided efforts at fomenting revolution prove futile, and she chooses to focus on changing her own life rather than trying to change the world.
The film’s structure is reminiscent of other ensemble films directed by Linklater, particularly his first feature, Slacker, in which the camera followed one character for a few minutes, watched him or her interact with someone else, and then continued by following that new character. The action isn’t quite so random here: We’re introduced to many of the characters through their interactions with others we’ve already met — as when we hang out to meet the Mickey’s employees after Kinnear stops in for a burger — but the bulk of the film cuts back and forth between a number of established characters, often contrasting their situations — as when a dozen or so illegals squeeze into their run-down motel room while Kinnear unpacks and casually half-watches lesbian porn in his Holiday Inn-type accommodations. But in several instances, we’re set up to anticipate events that never transpire, as though Linklater and Schlosser were satisfied with establishing their likelihood and implying their potential outcomes rather than delivering the goods.
Though the filmmakers don’t quite deliver on all they promise, neither do they pull any punches. We see the full variety of dangers and casual humiliations that workers in these industries are subjected to, and there is a sting that comes as each of their unhappy fates slide into place. The greatest sympathy lies with the illegal workers, who are the only characters whose futures seem entirely out of their own control, but, like the cattle slaughtered in the film’s grisly climactic scene, each character here is ultimately a cog in a much greater machine, one more vicious and uncaring than any individual could be.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Fast Food Nation / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | November 17, 2006 | Comments ()