How do you take a book that's non-fiction and make a fictional movie about it? Real-life stories are made into movies all the time, of course: Erin Brockovich, The Insider, All the President's Men -- all took real events and made them into films. But Fast Food Nation, the book, is not a story about a person. It's a painstakingly researched documentation of the history of the fast food industry and California car culture, and their collective impact on the way entire industries are run, the way people eat, and the way their food is produced. How to translate the vast amount of information Eric Schlosser presented in his book nearly a decade ago into a cohesive fictional film? The answer: It's not easy.
Schlosser's book, which started out as an article for Rolling Stone as a behind-the-scenes look at fast food, covered everything from suburban sprawl and changes in the meat industry destroying the American rancher; the meat-packing industry morphing from a crappy, but well-paid job with union benefits, into a crappy, poorly paid job with no benefits, mostly occupied now by illegal immigrants; teens becoming an underpaid and easily exploited workforce; and the rise of an entire industry marketing to children. The heart and soul of Schlosser's book is the focus on the plight of illegal immigrants -- a topic dear to his heart, as he previously spent a year following immigrant migrant farm workers for an article for The Atlantic on illegal immigration and its relationship with the produce industry. Schlosser's passion for this facet of the fast food industry comes across clearly in the book, and in the film adaptation, it's the segment imbued with the most passion as well. A lot of filmmakers wanted to make a documentary out of Fast Food Nation, and Schlosser spent years trying to make that happen, but it just never clicked. Enter Richard Linklater, and, in particular, producer Jeremy Thomas, who had the original idea to take Fast Food Nation and make a narrative feature out of it rather than a documentary. The end result -- based on a script co-written by Linklater and Schlosser, is heartfelt, although rather uneven. Schlosser and Linklater decided from the beginning that if they were going to make a narrative out of the book, they would have to basically toss the book aside, keeping its spirit, but creating original characters and storylines to reflect that spirit.
The script has three key segments. The first focuses on Don Anderson (Greg Kinnear), a marketing exec for Mickey's (a McDonald's-like burger chain), whose team came up with the latest best-selling product, "The Big One." Trouble is, The Big One has more than just meat -- independent lab tests have revealed a "high fecal coliform count" -- in other words, there's shit in the meat -- even though the lab tests they've been getting from their liaison with the meat-packing plant don't show the same problem. Kinnear is sent to Colorado to investigate. The second thread follows a group of illegal immigrants who end up working for the meatpacking plant, where the demand for faster output is leading to workers taking drugs to keep awake, getting ground up in the machinery, and intestinal matter (that would be the cow poop) contaminating the meat. The third thread follows Amber (Ashley Johnson), a teen working the counter of a local Mickey's. The enormously talented Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine) plays her co-worker, but he's sadly underused given what he's capable of. The problem with trying to cram this many storylines into a 116 minute film, though, is that there's just not enough time to flesh any of them out to the extent they deserve.
The Greg Kinnear piece is the vehicle that takes us to Colorado and the meat-packing plant, where Don meets a Rudy Martin (Kris Kristofferson), a grizzled, tough old rancher who is trying to hang on to what he's always known. Martin's Latino maid, who has relatives at the meatpacking plant, provides to Don a graphic description of how, exactly, the shit might end up in the meat; more chillingly, she notes, it happens all the time. Anderson also meets Mickey's liaison to the packing plant, Harry Rydell (Bruce Willis, who packs a lot of punch into his brief screen time), whose nonchalant attitude to the meat being contaminated ("Just cook the meat!") shocks Don. We get the strong sense that Don has never really considered the potential moral implications of his high-paying marketing job, and now he's suddenly faced with being responsible for marketing -- to families with kids -- food that he knows has feces in it. This is an interesting moral dilemma that I would have liked to have seen explored in more depth, but unfortunately, the segment with Kinnear ends up feeling a bit truncated to make room for everyone else.
The illegal immigrant segment of the film is chilling and eye-opening, as we follow Raul (Wilmer Valderrama), Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno), and Sylvia's sister Coco (Ana Claudia Talancón) from their harrowing trip across the border, to their jobs at the packing plant (which Sylvia quickly departs for a less dangerous job as a hotel maid), to Coco's entanglement with a corrupt supervisor who specializes in plying pretty young immigrants with drugs and then using them as his personal harem. These are interesting people with important, compelling stories, but I couldn't help but think as I was watching it how much greater the impact would have been, had we been following real immigrant workers in this situation through the lens of a documentary. These are characters symbolizing the greater issue of treatment of immigrant workers, but ultimately, we know they are just actors, and therefore their plight, while interesting, just doesn't have the force of meeting real people facing real problems.
Think a moment about some of the films on the Oscar documentary shortlist this year -- Deliver Us From Evil, Jesus Camp, An Inconvenient Truth -- and then try to imagine any of those stories told as a narrative rather than a documentary. Imagine Deliver Us From Evil, minus the chilling impact of pedophile priest Oliver O'Grady smiling as he talks about being turned on by children in their underpants, or the gut-wrenching scene of a victim's father breaking down as he talks about the priest he trusted and allowed to stay overnight in his home for years raping his five-year-old daughter. Jesus Camp, without seeing the effect of the evangelical camp on those real kids; An Inconvenient Truth, with global warming shown as an action-packed environmental disaster directed by Michael Bay.
Their power and punch would be drained right out of them, and instead of Oscar shortlist docs we'd be dealing with largely forgettable films. Now imagine Fast Food Nation, with immigrant workers who have worked in meat-packing plants talking about the horrors of working there, with ranchers showing us how their livelihood and lifestyle is being destroyed, with families who have lost loved ones due to contaminated meat products, with hidden-camera footage inside the meat plants themselves. As a narrative, it's just a story we're watching that may or may not affect us. The book struck a chord with so many readers because it was real, because in reading it, we cannot escape the truth of what we're learning. The film, though it tries had to do the same thing, just falls short of reaching the viewer in the same way.
The fllm is further watered down with the inclusion of the third piece - suffice it to say that after an over-the-top rant by her one-time activist uncle, Amber develops a social conscience and gets involved with a group of college environmentalists dabbling in ecoterrorism. Like many of the threads in the film, though, this one ultimately goes nowhere fast. I believe that Schlosser and Linklater had the very best of intentions in making this film, and if the end result makes people like me think twice before cruising through the nearest fast food drive-through window to pick up kiddie meals, that's a good thing. The film could have packed a stronger wallop, though, if Schlosser had been able to find a way to make a documentary of his book and show us the real workers, the real ranchers, the real meatpacking plants -- and the real lies that come with those super-size fries.