The documentary Food, Inc. is the perfect bookend movie, adaptable to many double-feature bills. When paired with Super-Size Me, it serves as the "before" shot, showing how those hamburgers came into being (so to speak), and how they're made so tasty -- and unhealthy. When paired with The Corporation (still the scariest movie I have ever seen), it functions as a particular case study of the evils detailed in that earlier picture, which was all about how these United States of America have been reconfigured to operate as nothing more than the personal (and profitable) playgrounds of a few select conglomerates and their insidious overlords. Heck, it can even be paired with Howard Hawks' classic Red River, in which Wild West cowboy Thomas Dunson (John Wayne) delivers an impassioned speech about the personal satisfaction of herding cattle and feeding the populace ("... Good beef for hungry people. Beef to make them strong; make them grow ..."). Poor Thomas would (pardon the pun) have a cow if he could see the mechanical means by which animals are slaughtered today.
Yet while Food, Inc. contains its share of queasy sequences (the peek inside the chicken house is especially unsettling), its focus is primarily on the manner in which the corporations have long taken over the entire food industry, in essence deciding what we eat and calculating how best to maximize their own profits (there's a reason sugary snacks and Happy Meals cost less than broccoli and asparagus). The result is that animals are brutalized, honest farmers are ruined and clueless consumers become ever more obese.
As is often the case, it takes a personal tragedy for someone to get involved: Lifelong Republican Barbara Kowalcyk found herself on the activist trail after her 2-and-a-half-year-old son died from E. coli after eating a tainted hamburger (after seven years, "Kevin's Law," a food safety bill named after the boy, still hasn't been passed by Congress). Yet the film makes it clear that both parties are culpable in this national shame: George W. Bush and both Clintons have benefited from the good fortunes of the Monsanto company (one of the movie's primary villains), and, even as I type this, bipartisan members of Congress -- reportedly with the Obama administration's blessing -- are backing a bill that would require Monsanto's genetically modified seeds to be the chief export in a plan to help overseas farmers produce their own food.
Food, Inc. will doubtless rank as the year's most depressing movie. Informed authors like Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma) are on hand to cut through the industry hype and misinformation, and the picture ends by stating that it's up to ordinary citizens to affect real change (as if!), but it often feels like our fates have already been sealed. Food, Inc. offers plenty of food for thought, but, as expected, there isn't much here to nourish the soul.