You Want Flies With That?

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 17, 2006

You deserve a case of fecal bacteria poisoning today.

That's the upshot of director Richard Linklater's muckraking kaleidoscope, "Fast Food Nation," a thinly fictionalized structure affixed to some serious meat industry reportage originally by Eric Schlosser for Rolling Stone and a book of that title.

Evidently Linklater and Schlosser decided that another lefty documentary screaming about corporate greed and exploitation would go exactly where so many before have gone: nowhere. So instead, they dramatized Schlosser's findings, assigning his discoveries to personalities in and around hamburger culture. Changing McDonald's to a chain called "Mickey's" (and being careful to show real McDonald's in as many background shots as possible so as to legalistically argue that Mickey's isn't McDonald's), they set their story in Cody, Wyo., where the film chronicles intersecting lives within a giant meatpacking installation in that beautiful Western city.

Looking like something out of Dickens's smoky, slummy London, this hellish plant ingests cattle at one end and churns out billions of little red disks of meatlike product at the other. Those items are frozen and shipped to the grills of the globe and merchandised, usually in the form of "Mickey's Big One" to people hungry for something exactly the same as they had yesterday. The cast is gigantic, including a Mickey's marketing exec, a radicalized burger counter girl, a whole tribe of illegal immigrants brutally used by the industry, various mid-level bullies and perverts, skeptical outsiders and even some cows.

The last supply the movie's signature moment, when the newly radicalized Amber (Ashley Johnson), good girl and recently retired clerk at Mickey's, leads a commando team of the enlightened to set the cows free. The kids chop down the steel fences to liberate the bovines who live in their own ordure and can look forward to nothing more than a panicked trip up the ramp, the application of the brain-puncture gun, and then deconstruction into various sub-units of marketable protein (they use everything except the moo!). But guess what? The cows don't want to be liberated. The cows are just fine where they are. Liberation is fine as a theoretical idea, but to the cow imagination, a few weeks of life in ankle-deep manure where at least all is known and three squares a day of genetically enhanced feed are provided is infinitely preferable to that terrifying thing known as freedom and its concomitant horror, enlightenment. The film argues unassailably: We are the cows.

Anyway, it works far better as journalism than as drama and it really doesn't work very well as journalism. One weakness is that poor Linklater has to keep bringing in guest explainers, who lay out one policy or other regarding Big Meat but have nothing whatsoever to do with the story. Kris Kristofferson, for example, with his husky Texas baritone, shows up as a rancher who simply explains the old cowboys' take on the mega-corporations that now seem to own and run the West. Then shrewd realist Bruce Willis drops by for a burger-eating scene in which he explains the realpolitik of Big Meat, which is simply the argument that even if the stuff has some tiny but detectable quantity of fecal bacteria, it always has and always will have and if you cook it, you probably won't die and if you do die, you'll be statistically insignificant.

Our access to these varying windows on meat politics is Greg Kinnear as Don Anderson, the star Mickey's marketing exec who came up with "The Big One," which is the movie's clear analogue to the Big Mac. Now, basking in glory, Don is sent to the plant that turns out all of Mickey's meat units to investigate someone's discovery that the gray greasy wafers wedged between buns that are hard but stale and garnished with lettuce that looks as if it survived nuclear winter also score high on the poop-o-meter.

He's a good man, but the movie makes the point that he's not really good enough. Though he wants to find the truth, he also doesn't want to find too much of it. Yet his wanderings around Cody take him here and there, and we watch him not becoming radicalized (as happens to Amber) but struggling with his conscience and weighing it against the comfortable life he has built for himself and his family.

Meanwhile, further down the economic spectrum, we follow a group of illegals, from their harrowing trip across the border, through their long van ride to Cody, to their ultimate absorption and destruction by the Big Meat plant. One of them becomes our access to the least attractive part of the business, the Kill Floor. There, she becomes a kidney puller. And you thought they just pushed a button and the animals neatly disconnected from their skeletal structures and re-gathered as burgers, strip steaks, pot roasts and tripe. No, that hard and grisly work is mostly done by giant gnawing machines, tended by scared illegals who, if they make a slip, may end up contributing some protein to your Big One tonight.

Fast Food Nation (105 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for profane language, sexual situations and authentic footage of slaughterhouse operations.

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