The past couple days Harvey and I have been watching Food Inc., the Michael Pollan-inspired movie that has its own display at our local Whole Foods. Obviously, I already agree with the filmmakers' agenda. But I don't think it's an ideal film.
The movie is all about the unnumbered evils of "big food": inhumane treatment of animals, terrible conditions for workers, unsafe food, pollution, reliance on petroleum, monoculture, unhealthy food, produce that tastes crappy, junk food that is cheaper than vegetables... you get the point. Really, it's just too much. If you already agree with the film's thesis, you're happy to say "right on!" to each charge, but for those still needing to be convinced it comes across as a bit scattershot—or worse, as a reach. "Wow, these guys sure hate the food industry!" the movie makes you want to say. "What, are they going to tell us that Tyson chicken nuggets are actually made from ground-up babies?!"
And then, the filmmakers don't really offer much in the way of a solution either. About all they can come up with is "buy better things at the grocery store." I understand why this is: ideally, they want their movie to reach people who aren't already shopping at farmers markets and growing their own food. They want changing the food landscape to be something that seems possible without too much sacrifice. But it doesn't really work, because how on earth can anyone imagine that their supermarket choices can affect the incredible litany of evils presented above?! And even if it could, the supermarket is a really confusing place. Is organic food good, or is local better? Is processed food ok if it's made by a "hippy" company? How much can we even trust labels, anyways? And the film acknowledges this: it's most compelling interviewee talks about how his meat will never show up on Walmart shelves, because getting that big would compromise his operation. (That's just before we hear how excited the dude from Stonyfield yogurt is to have broken big with the big box stores.)
To me, the movie goes at things from the wrong end. Don't tell people that everything they're eating is full of evil. Who knows what to do with that?! You either shrug it off, or get overwhelmed with the scope of the problem and do nothing. Wouldn't it be better to present stories of people who are doing better, even if in small ways? "Grow a garden," the end credits tell us. Why not show a few people who are growing their own food? Or even farmers serving local communities? Or a farmers market, for more than two seconds? Those things aren't in the movie, and I think it's because the filmmakers want to speak to the mainstream, and feel that the alternatives are too far out. But if they don't talk about them, they won't even seem possible to people who don't already know how easy they are.
Still, it's a better movie than most of what's out there. If it can steal a little multiplex time from the latest Marvel superhero rehash maybe it'll speak to one or two people who hadn't thought about the subject before. It's well-filmed, too.