Fast-Food Nation: Filmmakers with a Beef About How We Eat

Cows live happy, contented lives until, full of years, they go to humane slaughter. The beef, free of all contaminants, is delivered to restaurants around the world, where skilled chefs convert it into a wide variety of delicious, nutritious, additive-free heart-healthy meals. There are no losers in the human-restaurant-agribusiness-bovine alliance.

And that, of course, is pretty much what the fast-food companies would have you believe. But that first paragraph needs to be stood on its head. Unfortunately, much of society remains under a collective illusion: ground beef tells no tales and its origins are mysterious.

So, where does a hamburger come from? Why do we have so many hamburger stands? How can there be so many restaurants where there are no visible cows? How does the beef get from the pasture to the restaurant? Who kills that cow? Who serves it? And who does this process, ultimately, serve?

Most people just hand over their money and receive a hamburger—that’s the entirety of the process. Like the cows awaiting execution in the high-density feed lots, we don’t give it a hell of a lot of thought.

When Eric Schlosser’s book Fast Food Nation became a bestseller, it seemed like the status quo might soon change. The book was published to great acclaim in the "pre-terror" America of early 2001. People clearly wanted to know more about the force that has come to replace our kitchens, dominate our landscapes, and define our national culture. In a grand muckraking tradition, Schlosser answered all of our questions, exposed previously hidden connections, and hinted at the larger philosophical significance of it all. Fast Food Nation may be the most important work of nonfiction in our time.

Writer of the book Fast Food Nation and co-writer of the screenplay, Eric Schlosser on the set of FAST FOOD NATION.Photo by: Matt Lankes

Now, Schlosser has teamed with Dazed and Confused/Slacker director Richard Linklater to create a movie version. Instead of converting the original tome into a documentary, the collaborators have opted to tell interlocking, fictional stories taking us inside fast-food culture. Characters represent every strata of the vast McDon—, er, "Mickey’s" labor chain. We have Greg Kinnear’s family-man vice president of marketing, who goes to Colorado to figure out how cow poop gets into the meat; Ashley Johnson’s fast-food clerk, whose job is crushing her dreams; and a band of Mexican migrants who trek across the border for the promise of $80 work weeks at the Colorado slaughterhouse. Fast Food Nation is the hamburger version of Traffic.

The characters never actually meet each other (as they"d be unlikely to in real life), but in combination it is clear how their relationships add up to form the brown, saucer-shaped lumps at your local burger chain. Kinnear’s character invents the Big One burger, Johnson sells it at the franchise, and the migrants slice the meat, clean the slaughterhouse, and occasionally fall into gigantic slicing machines, whereupon they become slaves to their own health-care bills. (According to Schlosser, these exploited migrants are actually recruited by American companies operating in Mexico; they do not just come across the border as anti-immigration mouthpieces would have you believe.)

By focusing on specific characters, the movie reduces the global scope of the book. Environmentally, there’s much they’ve left out: the energy costs of shipping that meat, fertilizer run-off polluting our rivers, and so on. Still, viewed as an after-school special, the limited scope may be a positive thing. When reading the book, it’s hard not to say "wow, we’re really screwed"—the tentacles of the fast food octopus have the planet firmly in their grasp. The movie, by contrast, makes heroes of certain young characters and suggests that the politics of fast food can be influenced locally.

(L-R) Ana Claudia Talancón, Catalina Sandino Moreno and Wilmer Valderrama in FAST FOOD NATION.Photo by: Matt Lankes

What is strikingly effective is the humanity of every character—there are no men in black hats, and nobody is exactly at fault. Each player has a small part of the system, and to some extent we all believe in that system even when we don’t. We cannot blame the immigrants, the franchise managers, the store clerks, or the executives—all of them are "just doing their jobs." This "Nuremberg Defense" allows the robotic routine that converts living animals into the abundant human dietary supplement known as beef. The consumers, of course, are also part of this clockwork machine.

The narrative structure pushes us forward toward the revelation that will occur in a room known as the Killing Floor. You’d have to be an idiot to not know what occurs on the Killing Floor, but that turns out to be beside the point. Nightmarish scenes of actual slaughterhouse activity fill the screen, and we are forced to watch like god-fearing patrons of Hell House. The vegetarian money shot overpowers the book: nothing quite prepares you for the sheer bloody barbarity of the slaughterhouse’s inner sanctum, and the camera does not flinch. It lingers, and so do the images when the credits roll.

Ana Claudia TalancónPhoto by: Matt Lankes

The central metaphor, though, occurs near the end, when a group of student activists bust down the gate of a feed lot, expecting the trapped cows to stampede through the opening. Instead the cows stay rooted to their spots, staring off into space, and no amount of pushing or prodding can get even one cow to leave his prison of doom.

Since you’re reading “Our Planet,” I’m going to make a wild bet that you’re basically in agreement with Fast Food Nation, even if you’re not a vegetarian, and even if you haven’t actually read the book. When they"ve encountered it, most Americans have taken Schlosser’s book seriously. There aren’t as many rabid believers in fast food culture as there are, say, Americans who still believe Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11. But no matter what your views, it can be hard to separate one"s self from fast food. Most American towns are restaurant-impoverished—take out fast food and there’s nothing affordable left.

And there are those people, like myself, who just don’t have the time to get a proper meal every day. (I’m writing this review at a diner on my lunch break.) Fast food makes 30-minute lunches possible, and that possibility forces us to take 30-minute lunches so we can return to work. The quicky meal is more entrenched in our culture than any other retail business.

And that’s why the movie is, in itself, important. Fast food eaters are fast life people—not everyone has the time to read Schlosser"s book, even if it is on their reading lists. This movie may show them what they’ve missed. It is something you can watch and discuss with apolitical friends, the people with short attention spans, the white-collar slaves in your life, the kids who believe McDonald’s is a treat (or at least gives out neat toys), and so on.

From left: Actor Wilmer Valderrama, writer Eric Schlosser and director Richard Linklater.© Vanessa Pirandello

Fast Food Nation, the movie is not a masterpiece of cinema, but it is a very fine piece of propaganda. And it is redeeming as entertainment as well. Like the kids in the movie, Schlosser"s book opened up the gates of America’s awareness. The movie is poised to open them wider. Let the stampede begin.

So, the question of the hour is: how are you going to get everyone else to go out and see this movie when it opens wide on November 17?

BEN CHADWICK has had enough of being super-sized.


Fast Food Nation