The idea that “you’ll never look at dinner the same way again,” as the tagline for first-time feature documentary director Robert Kenner’s “Food, Inc.” suggests, does not even begin to accurately describe the general lack of knowledge American gluttons have about the foodstuffs they shovel down their gullets, but the film’s message attempting to address this is a decent enough start. Focusing more on the corporate constructs of the food industry than healthy eating, “Food, Inc.” sheds some important light on the side of agriculture that other documentaries like 2005’s “Super Size Me” do not. Still, the viewer leaves unsatisfied after 90 minutes of corporate condemnations and but a few minutes of ideas on how to change the system.
The issue these investigative documentaries now run into is that the general American public no longer needs a movie to skim over the basics of corporate practices. Perhaps it is educational to learn that the vast majority of your meat comes from but four companies and 13 slaughterhouses in the entire country - imagine the volume of dead, dirty animals those must process to fill America’s McDonalds with hamburger meat and chicken nuggets — but what filmgoers need is the next step: an in-depth, careful analysis of these practices and their effects on consumers.
Insofar as inciting change in eating habits is concerned, “Food, Inc.” would do better to be a series with titles like “Meat, Inc.,” “Corn, Inc.,” etc., rather than spending 15 minutes here on Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and 20 minutes there on nonsensical government subsidization of corn.
To the film’s credit, it never gets too preachy, nor does it take the assumed position that we should all become vegans and let cattle roam the country. But save for a few words at the tail end of the film suggesting we go to farmers’ markets more and buy organic food, it does not really offer any solutions either. You vote on these systems with every bite, says Kenner, but he somehow leaves out the part about how to choose more sustainable groceries and such. For instance, the film spends considerable time on Polyface Farm in Virginia, an old-fashioned farm with naturally raised animals, mentioning how the owner sells at his local farmers’ market - wherever that may be - yet somehow neglects to mention that his meats are used at Chipotle restaurants where your average consumer can make conscious decisions about supporting sustainable agriculture.
However, it is probably fair to say that if the film whets the appetite of the environmentally conscious or organically inclined, then it has achieved success. Michael Pollan, author of critically acclaimed “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and this year’s “Go Big Read” selection “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto,” figures prominently in the film’s narrative, lending a significant sense of expertise and level-headedness to a documentary that might otherwise be written off by naysayers as another anti-corporatist liberal movie - though it probably still will in many cases.
“Food, Inc.” is only going to leave a lasting impact on those who have never given their food a second thought, so unless these movies start capitalizing on the educational opportunities of specificity and intellectual potential of documentaries, as well as foregoing shock value for the sake of shock, the way you look at dinner will not be impacted enough to incite the change we need.
2.5 stars out of 5