When you watch a lot of documentaries, it’s hard to cling to cherished illusions.
Take food, for instance. Every time someone makes a “Super Size Me” or a “King Corn,” it becomes harder to be casual when searching supermarket aisles.
Now comes “Food, Inc.,” a documentary that gathers an acre’s worth of material on the process — make that processing — of food in America these days. The news ain’t pretty.
At least partly synthesized from the ideas of writers Michael Pollan (“The Omnivore’s Dilemma”) and Eric Schlosser (“Fast Food Nation”), both of whom help narrate the movie, “Food, Inc.” is a rapid-fire account of the shocking changes in how we make food.
The shocks come not from the expected footage of sick cows or grotesquely oversized chickens (which, their growth having been unnaturally accelerated, do not have bones strong enough to support their fat bodies).
Those are unpleasant things, but even more disturbing is the portrait of how organized and cynical the degradation of American food has been.
The film is firm about attributing this decline to the rise of fast food in the 1950s. Director Robert Kenner marshals a convincing argument about regulatory laxness and corporate greed, which ought to strike a chord in today’s ongoing economic meltdown.
There is detail on the matter of Monsanto and their genetically engineered seed, a story told elsewhere in documentaries, but still depressing. There’s also a heart-wrenching segment on a now-activist mother who lost her child to E. coli poisoning.
At times the ironies become Orwellian. One vignette introduces us to a family that eats fast food daily because it’s basically the best bargain for them. Because the fat-filled burger is subsidized and cheaper than a bag of carrots, how many options do they have?
But that’s not the irony. The terrible part is that one reason they eat fast food is because a big chunk of the monthly budget goes to pay for the overweight father’s medication — for diabetes.
Sometimes a single point will stand for an entire argument. Consider that the job of meatpacker was once a safe, noble profession with good benefits, the kind of job a father could pass down to a son. The film shows that meatpacking plants now are accident-prone places staffed by illegal immigrants whose jobs are transitory.
“Food, Inc.” is obviously designed to grab the attention of the newcomer to this subject. It might not have the impact of “The Jungle,” Upton Sinclair’s famous, industry-changing book about unregulated food processing. But it will grab people.
“Food, Inc.” 1/2
Fans of the books “Fast Food Nation” and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” might find this litany of food-industry horror stories familiar, but it’s still a shocking cascade of bad business practices and unhealthy eating habits. A series of vignettes, from corporate greed to personal medical woes, provide the meat of the matter.
Rated: Not rated; probably R for subject matter