A throwaway scene in Richard Linklater's Fast Food Nation may be the key to the whole movie: Checking out of a chain hotel in Colorado, after a fact-finding mission for his fast-food company, Mickey's, has led to disturbing revelations, Greg Kinnear answers a battery of questions from the cheery clerk behind the counter. When she asks whether he enjoyed his stay, Kinnear says "No," but she just moves right along to the next question. She doesn't care about the answers, only getting through the same customer-service script she executes all day. Based on Eric Schlosser's brilliant muckraking exposé on "the truth behind the all-American meal," Fast Food Nation translates gracelessly to fiction, with an avalanche of facts pouring from the mouths of immigrant meatpackers, minimum-wagers, corporate stooges, and campus activists. And yet moments like the clerk scene make it haunting nonetheless, because Linklater succeeds in capturing the dehumanized landscape of fast-food culture, in which everyone is following the script.
Schlosser's prismatic look at the industry, from labor issues and feedlot conditions to minor details like the perfume that gives McDonald's fries their special allure, has been turned into a Traffic of low-grade meat. The first half mostly follows Kinnear, a pragmatic Mickey's marketing VP who heads out to the company's Colorado meatpacking source after hearing reports that there's too much shit in the meat. What he finds disturbs him: cattle crammed together in unsanitary industrial feedlots, dangerous working conditions at the meatpacking plant, and a workforce of low-paid, undocumented Mexican immigrants. The second half shifts the emphasis more to two such immigrants, Catalina Sandino Moreno and her boyfriend Wilmer Valderrama, who are forced into painful compromises to make ends meet. It also follows a Mickey's cashier (Ashley Johnson) whose awakened conscience leads her to action.
Less a movie than a political act, Fast Food Nation aims to disseminate its counter-propaganda to the widest possible audience, which is the only plausible reason why the book has been shoehorned into a narrative instead of a documentary. It aims to put people off their dinner and turn them against their corporate masters, but Linklater and Schlosser offer the despairing view that all may be lost. Towns across America have already been transformed into homogenous McCities, workers are turned into indentured servants and drones, and all the money and political power supports the status quo; any gestures of resistance in the film are almost comically futile. Against these odds, Fast Food Nation can only change a few more minds and hope the tide turns somehow. Or, as one character vaguely puts it, "The bad guys win until they don't."