One Man Takes on the Fast-Food Industry, and Plenty of Pounds, in Super Size Me
Just as headlines hit about filmmaker Michael Moore's struggle to get his completed Bush-bashing documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 distributed, another politically charged documentary rolls into theaters with some snowballing buzz behind it. Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me documents the disturbing physical consequences of the filmmaker's month-long adherence to a strict McDonald's-only diet, and uses those consequences to jump-start more general discussions of America's obesity epidemic and the pernicious practices of multinational corporations. While falling short of the devastating, broad-based critique of Eric Schlosser's 2001 book Fast Food Nation, Spurlock's film continues an important trend of questioning the hegemony sacred cows such as McDonald's, Burger King, and Wendy's exert over our lives.
Spurlock constructed his experiment as follows: He determined to eat McDonald's three meals a day for 30 days. During this period he could only consume items available on the McDonald's menu, he had to try every item on the menu at least once, and he had to accept the "Supersized" portions whenever offered. To track any changes that might occur over the next month, Spurlock enlisted the help of several medical specialists, as well as a dietitian and a personal trainer. At the beginning of the experiment, all the enlisted experts agreed, Spurlock's health was in tiptop shape.
Without giving away too much, by the end of the month things were very different. A few days into the experiment, Spurlock was complaining of fatigue and headaches, and on at least one occasion produced some Supersized portions of vomit. Weight gain became an immediate problem. Furthermore, Spurlock's girlfriend, Alex Jamieson, began to register new sexual complaints. The full extent of the physical problems Spurlock develops as a result of his 30-day McBinge shocks himself, his girlfriend, and even the doctors monitoring his vital signs; suffice it to say, the maladies listed above represent the tiniest tip of the iceberg.
No one could accuse Spurlock of lacking dedication to his art. He quickly reaches a point where everyone involved urges him to abort his project, but he follows through, much to the horror of his friends and loved ones. Particularly alarmed is girlfriend Jamieson, who makes her living as a vegan chef; even as she seems to respect Spurlock's dedication, she visibly cringes every time she watches her boyfriend lift a Big Mac to his lips.
As Spurlock's gut balloons and copes with bouts of a phenomenon he dubs "McGas," he mounts a less personal attack on the images cultivated by our fast-food industry. He travels to Houston, then considered America's fattest city, and talks to experts about how the emergence of fast food might have had an exponential growth impact on America's already-widening waist sizes; he takes a closer look at the oft-ridiculed class-action suits that blamed McDonald's for the plaintiffs' obesity, in which the company's own defense acknowledged that the company considered the health risks of its food common knowledge; he discusses the use of on-site playgrounds as efforts to instill children with life-long brand loyalties; he breaks down the industry's demographic analysis of their customers as "users" and "heavy users;" and he offers up damning nutritional analyses of purportedly healthy menu items such as yogurt and salads.
If American cinema excels in any genre at the moment, it's in the narrative documentary. That people will get up from their couches and into theaters to see a nonfiction film about, for instance, a spelling bee, is indeed surprising and new. But an even greater surprise comes when one considers how many documentaries of an unapologetically populist bent are getting onto American art-house screens. Along with Moore's record-breaking Bowling for Columbine, films such as Life and Debt, The Trials of Henry Kissinger, The Fog of War, and The Revolution Will Not Be Televised all voice truths about the mechanisms by which American imperialism and multinational corporations ruin lives, truths that not only often won't appear in The New York Times but positively contradict many untruths on the front pages of such papers.
For some viewers, Super Size Me might seem the least explosive of this batch, but it's also arguably the most accessible—and, for many potential viewers, the most personal and urgent. Like Moore, Spurlock is a charismatic individual with a knack for making normal people comfortable on camera. As a result, he has conversations with fast-food employees, Big Mac enthusiasts, overweight individuals, and average janes and joes on the streets that make important points without condescension. We have all, Spurlock seems to argue, become complicit in an industry that increasingly has a very negative sum impact on lives worldwide. As with Fast Food Nation before it, to expect this film to directly make even the slightest dent in the armor of the fast-food behemoth seems unrealistic. But in addition to taking a pretty major health hit for the team, Spurlock has turned in a charismatic, powerful, and entertaining film that people will actually see. In other words, he's done his part—he's given us more ammunition with which to do ours.