Studio head Samuel Goldwyn famously said, "Call Western Union if you want to send a message." For a movie to effectively espouse a political leaning, it must be effective and entertaining on its own terms. Richard Linklater’s "Fast Food Nation" and Davis Guggenheim’s "An Inconvenient Truth," a fiction film and a documentary, respectively, both largely succeed in this regard.
"Fast Food Nation" (based upon Eric Schlosser’s bestselling nonfiction book and playing in competition at Cannes) does for burger chains what "Traffic" did for drugs. It tells several somewhat interconnected stories in an attempt to address an issue from multiple perspectives. And while it may not be as successful as "Traffic," it has a more organic feel; this is a message movie that doesn’t feel the need to stay relentlessly on-message.
The film involves a burger chain marketing exec (Greg Kinnear) who created the campaign for Mickey’s (the film’s fictional burger chain) biggest selling product but is disgusted when he learns about the working conditions at the company’s main meat packing plant in Colorado. It’s a place that employs many illegal immigrants from Mexico (including Wilmer Valderrama and Catalina Sandina Moreno, as a young couple that has just crossed the border); while the wages may be good, the conditions are hazardous (and a slimy, leering manager doesn’t make things any easier). A little further into town, high school student Amber (Ashley Johnson) works hard at the local Mickey’s franchise, but then begins to take a closer look at how the company earns its profits; soon she’s joining forces with a group of campus radicals in a plot against her (now former) employer.
With help from a sharp cast playing well-drawn characters, these plot strands meld together well enough that they never feel overly contrived. In some cases (as with a brilliantly smarmy cameo by Bruce Willis, or with the students’ failed revolutionary tactics), there’s even a certain studied ambivalence. The plant may make a substandard product, but it also provides jobs for poor immigrants that are willing to do the work. You may want to start a revolution, but going to jail isn’t exactly an enticing alternative, and what if the very things you’re trying to free don’t know how to be liberated (you’ll understand when you watch the movie)?
It should be noted that the scenes within the meatpacking plant are hard to watch. I will refrain from recounting the details, but "Fast Food Nation" has more blood, guts, and gore than your typical teen slasher. To quote Upton Sinclair, author of "The Jungle," Sinclair’s muckraking turn-of-the-century expose about the meatpacking industry, "I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach." If you love Big Macs, you might want to wait a while before having one; if you are a vegetarian, your preferences will seem profoundly justified.
Early in "An Inconvenient Truth," former Vice President Al Gore describes his efforts to inform the public on the issue of global warming: "I’ve been trying to tell this story for a long time, and I feel I’ve failed to get the message across." Some may find the idea of a feature-length documentary of Gore giving lectures a grueling prospect, but this is an issue that needs to be addressed, and as such, "Truth" is informative, entertaining, and quietly infuriating. Global warming is remarkable as a phenomenon that is indisputable to scientists, but not for many politicians, particularly conservatives. To them, it’s a theory, and anyway, it’s nothing that is an immediate concern for their constituency. (This film emphasizes that if there was ever a situation that epitomizes Stephen Colbert‘s assertion that "truth has a well-known liberal bias," this is it.)
Gore is a gentle polemist; in many cases, he simply shows images of places like Glacier National Park, or the Himalayans, covered in snow only a few decades ago, now showing clear evidence of melting. While much of the film paints a grim picture of how climate change will affect humanity (an increase in deadly storms, droughts and floods), Gore emphasizes that a shared commitment can reverse the tide. "Ultimately, this is not a political issue so much as a moral issue," Gore says. He is absolutely correct.