Mickey’s, a US fast food giant, has reaped stupendous sales from its new burger, The Big One. The trouble is, there’s shit in the meat.
Nice guy marketing executive Don Anderson is sent to find out what is happening with the meatpackers that the company is using because, as he explains, killing the customer is very bad for repeat business.
Thus begins a journey that takes him to the rottenest recesses of US capitalism. It involves the exploited Mexican immigrants seeking work in the packing plants and slaughterhouses, the ruthless companies who employ them, the people who work in Mickey’s outlets, and the activists who oppose them.
This film, a fictionalised version of Eric Schlosser’s 2002 investigative book Fast Food Nation, tackles matters of crucial importance.
It shows immigrant smugglers carrying dozens of young Mexicans in cramped vans to work for Mike, a supervisor at the packing plant who treats the workers as slaves and exploits the female ones for sex.
The work is gruelling and hazardous because the production lines are run as fast as possible to get every last penny of profit. Yet UMP’s propaganda repeatedly informs the workers that safety is their responsibility alone.
This is the seamy reality of the business that Anderson uncovers through encounters with locals. He discovers some of the many ways that bullshit can get into fast food.
He finally confronts Mickey’s meat buyer Harry Rydell, played by Bruce Willis, with the facts. Rydell, unmoved, spins a stunning apologiathat includes a paean to the Mexican workers for being so enterprising as to seek work at UMP.
One of the myths that is repeatedly annihilated in this film is the individualist ethic, which it becomes clear is a cover for exploitation and abuse.
Anderson also meets Amber, a young Mickey’s worker, who provides dutiful smiling service while harbouring nagging doubts about the industry she is involved in. What follows is a convincing depiction of political awakening as she is encouraged by her dissolute uncle to think critically about the world around her – and begins to get involved with a group of eco-activists.
The fact that the film is fictionalised gives it a great deal of license. A documentary would potentially be compromised by the risk of legal sanction. The movie format also allows director Richard Linklater, who co-wrote the script with Schlosser, to approach the matter in a thematic way.
Like the book, it is no mere consumerist attack on the unhealthy nature of fast food. Instead it tackles the profit-driven exploitation of workers, the environmental impact of the industry, the rapid colonisation of urban space by retail outlets and the cruel treatment of animals.
It also looks at the nature of George Bush’s US, and the immense political power of supersized corporations.
The skilful handling of ideas is reminiscent of Linklater’s 2001 philosphical film, Waking Life. However this film manages to combine a compelling critique of some aspects of contemporary US capitalism with a more or less explicit call for activism – all in a story clearly pitched at a mainstream audience.
Even its most preachy moments emerge directly from the narrative, which is punctuated with dark humour, some truly shocking scenarios and dreamlike (or nightmarish) sequences.
The film’s dialogue is sharp and the characters are convincing. There are some limits, however.
For example, one never gets a glimpse of the power that the immigrant workers themselves can collectively bring to bear. This was witnessed in the mass protests across the US last year for immigrants’ rights.
Rather, the burden of political action is placed on the shoulders of radicalised students.
But this is a minor quibble. The film is a bold and unflinching look at what, besides meat and faecal matter, goes into your burger. It would be a brave person who walked out of the cinema after seeing Fast Food Nation and feasted on a Happy Meal.
Fast Food Nation is released in cinemas across Britain on Friday 4 May.