Doomsayers aren’t hurting for reason to be pessimistic these days, especially if they’re documentary buffs. Over the past few years, a debate has raged within the muckraking documentary communities as to how mankind will meet its ultimate doom. Will runaway personal debt do us in, as Maxed Out cogently argues, or will national debt be more of a factor, as espoused by I.O.U.S.A.? Will corporate corruption of water spell the end of life as we know it, as Flow warns an apathetic, oblivious nation? Food, Inc. introduces a dark horse into the apocalypse Olympics in the form of tainted Franken-food and the corruption of our agricultural process.
Robert Kenner’s slick, convincing documentary surveys a grim milieu where scientists have tampered so dramatically with the DNA of chickens and cows that they’ve devolved into grotesque, ghoulish caricatures and Bush appointees to the FDA act as attack dogs for big business instead of watchdogs for consumers. Kenner takes audiences deep into the ugly underbelly of American food production, from holding pens for chickens that reek of shit and despair to meat-processing plants where flesh gets pounded and shredded into bloody abstraction. Kenner combines interviews with experts like Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser with stomach-churning footage of animals becoming meat and heartbreaking personal stories like a Republican mother who became an advocate for safer food after her son died of E. Coli.
In keeping with the pragmatism of the Obama era, Food, Inc. doesn’t agitate for vegetarianism or a complete overhaul of the system, though like Upton Sinclair’s simpatico novel The Jungle before it, it’s destined to inspire some short-term vegetarians. Its heroes are realists who’ve found a way to be relatively humane within the system, like a farmer who kills his animals the old-fashioned way or an organic outfit that sells its wares through Wal-Mart. Like many social issue documentaries, Food, Inc. is better at addressing problems than offering solutions: its endorsement of organic food in particular feels a little flimsy. Nevertheless, it’s entertaining and fast-moving enough to make audiences intermittently forget they’re consuming cinematic health food.