Though not all that remarkable nor exceptional as far as documentary filmmaking goes, Food, Inc., the new work by Two Days in October helmer Robert Kenner, is nonetheless something I feel would benefit any viewer who hasn't been introduced to the concepts of how agrarian business has mutated over the years. However, it will no doubt find a better home in lecture halls and classrooms than it will in the bustling landscape of arthouse theatergoing.
Navigated by Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan -- the authors of Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore's Dilemma, respectively -- Kenner begins where any concern for the national health does: McDonald's. Briskly showing the rise of the company founders from humble drive-in owners to business-minded economic gladiators, the director offers a quick and easy allegory for the entire food-making and harvesting industry.
Anyone who has read Schlosser's bestselling, invigorating exposé, or for that matter The Jungle, will find Kenner's examination of the beef industry a bit tedious, especially seeing as nothing said here is as galvanizing as the direct admission in Richard Linklater's adaptation of Schlosser's book that "there's always been a little bit of shit in the meat." A similarly supine section involves the question of illegal immigrants and how the U.S. food markets have basically stolen work and a living wage from South America; a topic that deserves a miniseries on PBS rather than a few rushed minutes.
Kenner finds his strength in depicting the disintegration of the farmer's way of life and the stranglehold put on agriculture due to unprecedented legal protection and food demands. At moments, such as seed-supply giant Monsanto's litigation of a small-scale seed cleaner, the film harkens back to the fury and barren depiction of small-town life in Barbara Kopple's urgent classic Harlan County USA. A visit with two chicken farmers -- one willing to buy into the game, the other tired of it -- is perhaps the key moment of realization as they walk into dark, cluttered warehouses to feed and harvest their livestock, rather than out in the sunshine.
A suitably informative cinematic primer for a subject that has been chronicled best (and extensively) in print, Food, Inc. nevertheless has too much on its plate (pun intended). For whatever information it does give during its runtime, there are several questions still left lingering, especially concerning corporate motives. I'd argue that there is a severe lack of counterpoint to this decrying of technological growth and "progress" but, as always, that stiltedness seems more a lack of willingness on the part of the companies to talk than Kenner's. Ironically, these same conglomerates are the ones who will later claim to be vilified by the likes of people like Kenner, Morgan Spurlock, or Michael Moore.
Near the end of this cluttered exposé, before Bruce Springsteen sings "This Land is Your Land" (I wish that was a joke), a corporate officer for Stonyfield Farms, which was recently bought by a multi-billion-dollar corporation, talks about the will of the people to be healthier and how organic farming can be sold as a capitalist concept; later, he smartly correlates the current problems in food manufacturing with the tightening of regulations on cigarettes and tobacco. Ideas like this are few and far between in Food, Inc. but they are the kind that sell not only the film but the film's respectable goals.
Yes you can haz cheezburger.