The Not-So-Happy Meal


McDonald's turned 50 this year. And, like many 50-year-olds, Ronald is in the thick of a midlife crisis. Yet, in contrast with the pencil-pushing, righteous-living ways of many who feel the urge to indulge their inner adolescents, McDonald's has gotten all the play out of the way. The Happy Meal lifestyle couldn't last forever, much as the joy that comes from shoving a Big Mac down your craw and following it with a haystack of fries turns inevitably bilious and dyspeptic. So now McDonald's is on a bit of a health kick, pushing salads and apple slices instead of slobbery sandwiches and snotty apple pies.

Deprived of the interior tick of mortality that often occasions a Porsche-buying spree, McDonald's found an unusual motivation for its revamp: the one-two punch of Eric Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation" and Morgan Spurlock's garish science-project of a documentary, "Super Size Me." After Schlosser exposed horrifying facts about the fast-food industry (there's poo in the meat, dawg!) and Spurlock turned gassy and grey after his month-long McFest Quest, McDonald's had to respond. It rose from the grease fire, newly svelte and shapely -- and as slick as ever.

Or maybe not, if "McLibel" has anything to do with it. Franny Armstrong's new documentary takes a huge bite out of the attempt by McDonald's to create a shiny new image for itself. Filmed over a period of 10 years, "McLibel" tracks English activists Helen Steel and Dave Morris as they battle libel charges that McDonald's filed against them. Their alleged crime? Distributing leaflets that warned of the restaurant's unfair work conditions, manipulative kid-focused advertising, and its negative impacts on consumer health and the environment.

"McLibel" starts out in the infotainment/propaganda vein now so familiar to weary documentary viewers: Armstrong unreels background context ("A friendly clown persuaded children to love the company") in Star Wars fashion, giant yellow type receding into black. Fussy British actors play opposite Steel and Morris in court-scene reenactments -- very McMasterpiece Theatre. But despite the bells and whistles, and unapologetic partisanship, "McLibel" remains a complex and fascinating film, with heroes all the more convincing for their unflashy devotion to their cause.

Steel and Morris make an interesting contrast to Spurlock (who structured "Super Size Me" so he could forever have his mug in the camera). The McLibel 2 are stubbornly self-effacing, which allows Armstrong time to supply viewers with gruesomely fascinating information about the business, employment, advertising, and manufacturing processes at McDonald's. Armstrong makes excellent use of her experts, including a former Ronald McDonald clown who decided that he couldn't live with himself any longer if he kept manipulating children. Other highlights include footage from inside a McDonald's chicken processing plant. Fuzzy, adorable chicks roll down conveyer belts; unwanted ones are gassed -- some 1,000 per week.

The sight is horror-inducing, even for a callous, defiantly carnivorous junk-food whore like me. Nearly as awful, despite their familiarity, are the images of overweight diners, ferociously cankled, massive boulder buttocks roiling underneath elastic waistbands. Who are these feckless fatties? Does anyone ever recognize his or her own giant heinie in one of these films? If the fast-food exposé becomes a cinematic genre, the fat footage could become a mighty deterrent indeed.

While Armstrong walks viewers through the McLibel 2's attempt to defend each of their pamphlet's points in court, she creates a damning case against the corporation -- if a fuzzier picture of the U.K. libel law that has led to the suit. Despite that deficiency, and the urge to lionize its heroes, "McLibel" paints a deeply satisfying portrait of what was at stake in Steel and Morris's case and how much it cost them to wage England's longest legal battle with nothing but a grassroots campaign for support. Morris, a single father, found less and less time to spend with his son; Steel made do with wages earned from a bartending job at a disco.

Neither Steel nor Morris see their struggle as a David-and-Goliath scenario, in the conventional sense. "It's the public that are the giants," says Morris. In a way, he implies, he and Steel were just the people's servants. It's a startlingly unique, and individual decision, their insistence on their own quirky, stubborn ways in the face of the crushing -- some might say homogenizing -- power of McDonald's. This attitude carries through every moment they are onscreen as well. Steel and Morris never showboat for the camera or detract from the issues for the sake of their own self-aggrandizement.

I wish "McLibel" all the viewers it so amply deserves. But I also worry that viewers might feel like they've already seen "the McDonald's documentary" after viewing the comparatively lightweight and self-indulgent "Super Size Me." That would be a tremendous pity. Although "McLibel" might not be as slick going down, it's a lot healthier and more fulfilling in the end.

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