Fast Food Nation

Fast Food Nation

Spit on your burger’s the least of your worries

By Amanda Witherell

Book lovers always lament movie adaptations: they rarely deliver. But Fast Food Nation, like a swift injection of growth hormone, adds flesh and character to the very real problems of where America’s food comes from and the different ways it’s absolutely mishandled. The feature film is based on the 2001 nonfiction book by journalist Eric Schlosser, who helped director Richard Linklater finesse the screenplay into something of a morality tale tracing the true origins of a Mickey’s hamburger.

Following the tangled strands of food production and consumption, the film jumps between the perspectives of exploited immigrant workers clad in Hazmat suits in a meat processing plant and Greg Kinnear playing the hapless corporate hack trying to figure out just how in the heck his company’s Big Ones are coming up contaminated on the buns. There’s a predictable arc to the narrative, most noticeable in teenage character Amber (Ashley Johnson), a bright-eyed Mickey’s employee who gets a see-the-light lesson from her ex-activist uncle (Linklater favorite Ethan Hawke). Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine) as the apathetic burger flipper is the perfect antidote to Amber’s painful optimism, serving up some old food service clichés. But his spit in the burger isn’t the biggest “eww-gross” moment.

Linklater, a vegetarian, wasn’t able to get permission to shoot in an American meat processing plant, so the movie uses real footage from a Mexican one that agreed to be filmed because Schlosser’s tale casts a true light on America’s despotic immigration policies. The scenes of women trading sex for jobs at the border-town plant become very believable when juxtaposed with images of real-time slaughter. Schlosser said workers at a Greeley, Colo., plant whom he interviewed for the book criticized the movie after a screening in Denver — the Mexican plant looked too sterile and unrealistic compared to where they work.

It’s been 100 years since Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle inspired laws to reform meat packing plants. By turning journalism into fiction and translating that from print to real, stomach-turning imagery, Fast Food Nation once again questions America’s massive appetite. I still haven’t eaten meat since I saw the scene in which a cow’s skin is stripped off its body with a chain and a winch, a process more befitting an offshore oil rig than a slaughterhouse.

Originally published November 14, 2006 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian