Food, Inc. (Robert Kenner, 2008)
You know, I really thought that Michael Moore was going to be the absolute worst filmmaker I could ever be exposed to, a kind of halfwit court jester who doesn’t realize he stopped being funny long ago, if indeed he ever was. Unfortunately, Moore’s baffling popularity has spawned imitators who don’t seem to have glommed onto the fact that Moore at least did have a sense of humor, however questionable. Enter TV documentarian Robert Kenner, turning in his first big-screen feature, a ridiculous piece of one-sided propaganda that barely warrants the term “documentary”, and I say this as someone who entirely agrees with all but two of the points being made here (more on that later).
Plot: factory farming is bad, mmmkay? And the evil megacorps who practice it are bent on taking over the world, no matter the cost in human and animal misery, muhahahahahahahahahaaaa!
Yes, I’m serious. The main difference between Monsanto and Gru (the main character in the delightful animated film Despicable Me) is that Gru eventually grows a heart. But I guaran-damn-tee you, if Robert Kenner could have found a way to work in some sort of unsubstantiated allegation that Monsanto, like Gru, had hatched an attempt to steal the moon, he’d have thrown it in here. This is a guy with a chip in his shoulder, a very big one. He’s got a life-sized grudge against big corporations, whether they be restaurant chains (McDonald’s, of course, is singled out), big-box stores (while the film provides a pretty comprehensive list, of course you know he’s specifically going after Wal-Mart), factory farmers (Monsanto, blah blah blah) and their lobbyists, and the government, who are needless to say puppets dancing to the megacorps’ tune. And like I said at the top of the hour, you know what? I agree with him about most of this. I’m as anti-factory-farm and pro-locavore as the next guy. And I teared up at Keith Kowalcyk’s story just like pretty much everyone else who watched this movie—though I wonder if Barbara Kowalcyk understood the terrible irony of her statement that she doesn’t want pity, she just wants people to listen, when half the movie that’s just gone by is all about inciting people to pity in order to soften them up for Kenner ramming his message into the frontal lobes of his viewers with all the subtlety of a captive bolt pistol (google that if you don’t know what it is, but here’s two hints: it was Javier Bardem’s character’s favorite murder weapon in No Country for Old Men, and it is very germane to this discussion).
As for those two places where Kenner got it horribly, horribly wrong, as a side discussion: first off, the long stream of text at the end of the film, which is put there just in case you, the viewer, are too stupid to have gotten all the bullet points while, you know, actually watching the movie, starts off with an exhortation to buy organic. This despite having shown us a scene less than twenty minutes before of the CEO of Stonyfield Farms ushering a rep from a prospective buyer around an organic foods fest, pointing out all of the companies represented there that are now parts of megacorps. (“Kashi is Kellogg’s?” “Yes.” “I didn’t know that.”) They seem to be taking an “any regulation is better than no regulation” tack in making this exhortation, as so many people do (you will see “buy organic and only organic!” advice in at least half the diet books published in the past ten years), but the simple truth of the matter is that the guidelines for a product being certified organic by the American government are not only lax, but constantly shifting. The movie opens with a brief discussion of how the American public is misled by companies having images of farmers and red barns and all that malarkey on their products… and then at the end of the movie the filmmakers are allowing themselves to be misled by that damn-close-to-meaningless “certified organic” label in exactly the same way, and because they’re offering themselves up as skeptics, they’re duping you into the same boat. Take a different piece of advice from that text stream: buy local, instead (and while you’re at it, watch the vastly superior locavore documentary that came out soon after this, Ingredients.)
Second: in yet another piece of knee-jerk-reaction-dom, and one that has very quickly become almost as prevalent as the “buy organic!” scam, these guys are of course anti-GMO. And that is a much, much, much longer discussion than the one above, one that we don’t really have time for here, but I have commented on it at length in other reviews (most explicitly in my review of Vegan Cooking for Dummies, q.v.). To lay it out as briefly as possible, it’s ridiculous, and arbitrary, to attack GMO and embrace “certified organic” when they both have exactly the same amount of research done on them vis-a-vis risks and benefits of consumption. It shows a kind of selective blindness that should raise red flags in your head—though with this documentary, those flags should already be up and waving long before you get to the GMO section.
I think the film industry needs to adopt the same standards the book industry did a decade or so ago, when the rise of the memoir caused book publishers to create an entirely separate category that is now known as “creative nonfiction” to distinguish things that are actually true from things that are seen through rose-colored, jaundice-colored, or psychedelia-colored lenses a la Augusten Burroughs/James Frey/Elie Wiesel/etc. Food, Inc. falls firmly into whatever category they would decide to create; it is nonfiction, but it is so one-sided that you can’t help but wonder how much the filmmakers massaged the data, how many editorial tricks were used on the footage, how many interviews were left on the cutting-room floor in order to make sure that anything that might have made this film balanced was excised. It’s offensive—and again, I say this as someone who agrees with almost every premise presented here. Actually, now that I think about it, the fact that I agree with them makes it even worse. ½