Fast Food Nation

Film adaptation delivers some meat if you can get past the gristle.

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.


“When you eat meat, you should know that it is going to be bloody,” author Eric Schlosser told an enthusiastic Berkeley audience after an advance screening of the film Fast Food Nation. In that regard the movie is a success, but in trying to adapt one of the decade’s most influential works of investigative journalism into a dramatic feature film, Schlosser and director Richard Linklater may have bitten off more than they could chew.

Imitating the social-realist-pastiche style made popular by films such as Traffic, Syriana, and Crash, the movie Fast Food Nation interweaves three narratives in an attempt to show how the burger industry affects all strata of society. Near the top of the food chain, we are introduced to Don Henderson (Greg Kinnear), a marketing executive at the burger franchise Mickeys. A newcomer to the dirty politics of the drive-thru, Henderson receives a rude awakening when he’s sent from headquarters to Cody, Colorado to investigate worrisome levels of E.coli showing up in the meat.

Also arriving in Cody is a group of young Mexican immigrants (Catalina Sandino Moreno and That ’70s Show’s Wilmer Valderrama) fresh from an illegal border crossing. They quickly find themselves working the graveyard shift in the town’s meat-packing plant. The third plot thread focuses on the small fry working behind the fast-food counter. It follows Amber, an overqualified teenager working at Mickeys to pay for car insurance. Unsatisfied with the job, she quits after joining the ranks of well-informed but ineffectual college activists.

Readers often criticize book-to-screen adaptations for what they leave out, but in Fast Food Nation, Linklater and Schlosser have erred in the other direction, stuffing too much into a single film. The strength of Schlosser’s book was its populist critique that went beyond the usual liberal harangue against the fast food industry as a minimum-wage paying purveyor of unhealthy meals. It exposed the national proclivity for fast food as both a cause and symptom of much deeper social and environmental ills.

It is difficult to fault the film for attempting to do the same, yet as it tries to touch on the dangers of border crossings, methamphetamine addiction, animal cruelty, super-sized portions, political corruption, artificial flavors and urban sprawl it inevitably stretches its characters thin. The ensemble cast, including cameos by Bruce Willis, Ethan Hawke, and Avril Lavigne, makes matters worse. Good performances by Kinnear and Sandino Moreno notwithstanding, the intrusions of so many famous faces detract from a film already running low on authenticity.

Despite its overt politics and witty script, the movie may disappoint progressively-minded audiences as its central themes of immigrant exploitation and corporate greed rehash points made with more nuance in others films. The plight of illegal immigrants feels over-wrought and lacks the kind of realism found in more patient films like the 1983 El Norte and the more recent Maria Full of Grace. The film’s satire of corporate executives echoes the wry humor of Thank You for Smoking, but swings Fast Food Nation jarringly back and forth between the realm of reality and caricature.

To its credit, the plot shows glimmers of the grace with which Schlosser’s book used the way we eat as a metaphor for how we live. And Linklater adds some visual finesse from long flyovers of crowded stockyards to uncompromisingly gruesome sequences of cows going through the slaughterhouse. Simply gaining access to film such scenes, in the wake of Schlosser’s muckraking, should not be taken for granted. In fact, the crew had to travel to Mexico in order to find a facility that would permit them inside. According to Schlosser, the factory’s management agreed to participate in the film in large part because of the systematic abuse of Mexican immigrants in the United States—a reminder that although Fast Food Nation is an imperfect film, it is impassioned and deeply relevant.

LET’S TALK ABOUT OPTIMISM FOR A CHANGE

Democracy and journalism are in crisis mode—and have been for a while. So how about doing something different?

Mother Jones did. We just merged with the Center for Investigative Reporting, bringing the radio show Reveal, the documentary film team CIR Studios, and Mother Jones together as one bigger, bolder investigative journalism nonprofit.

And this is the first time we’re asking you to support the new organization we’re building. In “Less Dreading, More Doing,” we lay it all out for you: why we merged, how we’re stronger together, why we’re optimistic about the work ahead, and why we need to raise the First $500,000 in online donations by June 22.

It won’t be easy. There are many exciting new things to share with you, but spoiler: Wiggle room in our budget is not among them. We can’t afford missing these goals. We need this to be a big one. Falling flat would be utterly devastating right now.

A First $500,000 donation of $500, $50, or $5 would mean the world to us—a signal that you believe in the power of independent investigative reporting like we do. And whether you can pitch in or not, we have a free Strengthen Journalism sticker for you so you can help us spread the word and make the most of this huge moment.

payment methods

LET’S TALK ABOUT OPTIMISM FOR A CHANGE

Democracy and journalism are in crisis mode—and have been for a while. So how about doing something different?

Mother Jones did. We just merged with the Center for Investigative Reporting, bringing the radio show Reveal, the documentary film team CIR Studios, and Mother Jones together as one bigger, bolder investigative journalism nonprofit.

And this is the first time we’re asking you to support the new organization we’re building. In “Less Dreading, More Doing,” we lay it all out for you: why we merged, how we’re stronger together, why we’re optimistic about the work ahead, and why we need to raise the First $500,000 in online donations by June 22.

It won’t be easy. There are many exciting new things to share with you, but spoiler: Wiggle room in our budget is not among them. We can’t afford missing these goals. We need this to be a big one. Falling flat would be utterly devastating right now.

A First $500,000 donation of $500, $50, or $5 would mean the world to us—a signal that you believe in the power of independent investigative reporting like we do. And whether you can pitch in or not, we have a free Strengthen Journalism sticker for you so you can help us spread the word and make the most of this huge moment.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate