Directed by: Robert Kenner
Starring: Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser
This is one of those films that I spent some considerable time avoiding. I successfully ducked two screenings and put off watching the screener till the very last minute. Why? Because I expected Robert Kenner’s Food, Inc. would be either a gross-out indictment of animal slaughter à la Georges Franju’s short Le Sang des Bêtes (1949), or a smug, self-satisfied finger shake along the lines of Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me (2004)—or even a bit of both. Thankfully, it’s neither. Instead, Food, Inc is a sober—and sometimes sobering—look at the mechanics, politics and big business behind food production. (That last no doubt accounts for the film’s one outright dismissive review on Rotten Tomatoes by hard-right conservative critic Kyle Smith.)
The film is built in large part on interviews with authors Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) and Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation), which lend themselves to further examination via visits to various farms—and what currently pass for farms—with side trips to political considerations and (largely unsuccessful) attempts at questioning key corporations like Tyson, Perdue and Monsanto. (Surprisingly, the most forthcoming corporation is Wal-Mart—not through any sense of right or wrong, mind you, but simply because of a customer-driven philosophy. In other words, if people want organic food, Wal-Mart will sell it.) The picture that emerges is hardly a pretty one, but unlike most films of this type, Food, Inc. manages to impress rather than merely depress the viewer.
Stories of “little people” who are crushed at the hands of Perdue and Monsanto are grim, but the very fact that there are people out there who are willing to take on such largely impregnable corporate giants is somehow encouraging. When the woman who dares to allow the film crew into her non-Perdue-model chicken coop walks out of the darkness of the coop into the light, there’s a sense of moral victory—despite the loss of her Perdue contract.
It’s also one of the few truly striking images in Food, Inc.—which is, unfortunately, indicative of one of the few downsides to the film. The movie simply isn’t all that dynamic in terms of filmmaking, being a fairly straightforward documentary. That’s a hard sell in today’s marketplace, but not an automatically impossible one. No one is ever going to confuse An Inconvenient Truth (2006) with the latest Michael Bay sensory assault or, for that matter, the latest Michael Moore essay film—and An Inconvenient Truth fared well enough. There is room, and even need, for this kind of filmmaking.
One of the many things that sets Food, Inc. apart from a film like Supersize Me is that it actually bothers to recognize that a great many people do not have the option to simply eschew the world of fast food—even to the degree that it can be done. The whole process of “eating smarter” is rigged to being more costly and has little practical application for people whose schedules don’t offer the alternative to “grabbing a bite.” For that matter, Food, Inc. also makes it clear that the whole manner in which food on almost any level is produced is controlled by the needs of the fast-food giants, whose demands for quantity created the structure we now face.
The picture isn’t a pleasant one, but Food, Inc. does manage to suggest—perhaps a bit naively—that this is not an impossible situation. After all, the marketplace is—as Wal-Mart evidences—largely consumer-based and will adapt itself to what the consumer wants. Similarly, the political side of things is ultimately responsive to the demands of the voters and can be influenced in that manner. Yes, both solutions have drawbacks and are up against the power of corporate America, which, in so many respects, controls what happens in politics. Still, exercising the power we have—however limited—is better than just accepting what we’re handed. That, in many ways, is the message of the film—and what makes it worth seeing. Rated PG for thematic material and disturbing images.