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Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2004
BURGERS 'N' BASES
In the atrophied heart of America
There was a time, not so long ago, when the opening of a McDonald's franchise in Moscow, Beijing, or -- Jesus wept -- Tahiti was seen as some sort of triumph of freedom, capitalism and the American way. However, now that America is officially The Fattest Nation on Earth -- with all the health problems like heart attacks, diabetes and fitting into airplane seats that come with it -- fingers are starting to be pointed at the purveyors of fast food.
Leading the charge is director Morgan Spurlock with his grease-busting documentary "Super Size Me," a witty, fact-filled and easily-digestible look at the excesses of the fast-food industry. Spurlock is obviously following in the footsteps of Michael Moore, in both his liberal use of satire and a first-person narrative. But more so than Moore, Spurlock becomes part of the subject of his film; to test his hypothesis that fast food is making America fatter, Spurlock resolves to eat nothing but McDonald's fare morning, noon and night for an entire month, and see what happens.
The results sure ain't pretty, but they certainly illustrate his point. In a mere 30 days Spurlock gains 11 kg, while his cholesterol count soars and his sex drive falters. The team of doctors monitoring his medical status become visibly alarmed. "Your liver is now like pate," warns general practitioner Daryl Issacs, a sardonic character who certainly deserves his own series.
Spurlock's experiment on himself is the hook, designed to grab viewers weaned on the time-limit "challenges" of current reality-TV programs, but around this core he spins an alarming array of facts. Who knew that a 7-Eleven "Double Gulp" soda has the equivalent of 48 teaspoons of sugar in its whopping 64-oz. serving? Or that one in three Americans born in 2000 are predicted to get diabetes? Or that a McChicken Salad with dressing actually contains more fat than a Big Mac?
Occasionally Spurlock will just run with a tangent that pleases him -- like Don Gorske, the Big Mac addict who describes how he ate 265 of the burgers in one month -- but for the most part he shapes his interviews and factoids into a tight and cohesive assault: Americans are too sedentary, serving sizes are way out of proportion, children are targeted by billions of dollars in advertising aimed at "brand imprinting for actuation later in life," and the food has an addictive quality that keeps us coming back. (This point is reinforced by how McDonald's refers to its repeat customers as "heavy users.")
"Super Size Me" might seem less of a revelation to those who have read Eric Schlosser's excellent book "Fast Food Nation." Even so, where Schlosser spent much of his energy exploring how the fast food business model has warped America both culturally and economically, Spurlock hones in almost exclusively on the body-health issues of junk food. While many critiques of fast food come from health-food fundamentalists who wouldn't go near a burger even if it was going to make them lose cholesterol, Spurlock offers "service with a smile." He likes fast food, even enjoys it (at first), which gives him a greater credibility when he lays into it.
Less convincing in its critique is "Buffalo Soldiers," which looks at crime, drug-dealing and other shady activities engaged in by American GIs stationed in West Germany in the late 1980s. Director Gregor Jordan ("The Kelly Gang") seems to think he's dishing out a hard-hitting expose of the dark side of the U.S. military, but the results come off more like a post-MTV version of "Hogan's Heroes."
Joaquin Phoenix plays Ray Elwood, the erstwhile Hogan character, a peacetime soldier with a supply battalion who enjoys cooking up heroin, selling weapons on the black market, and driving a Benz, while easily duping his clueless commander (Ed Harris, doing his best not to just stick in a monocle and do Col. Klink). The chief of military police on the base is a dealer, the C.O.'s wife is a nympho, black gangs whup the living hell out of cracker enlistees, and stoned tankers drive their vehicle into a gas station's fuel pumps. Clearly, this one did not receive Pentagon approval.
The tension comes when Elwood's life on easy street is disrupted by the arrival of straight-and-narrow Sergeant Lee (Scott Glenn). When Lee cracks down hard on Elwood's loose lifestyle, he replies by dating Lee's daughter Robyn (Anna Paquin), a ploy which only enrages the sergeant more. Elwood's such a sleazebag you can't help but feel he deserves the ass-kicking that's coming his way (shades of James Van Der Beek in "The Rules of Attraction"), but Lee ends up being such a psycho by the film's final reel, it's hard to take any of this seriously.
The film's cynical take on military indiscipline -- with inept, career-obsessed commanders and overt racial violence within the ranks -- is something we haven't seen since movies about the Vietnam War, but its descent into action-movie hyperbole is simply unbelievable, with fratricidal shootouts between entire platoons of chemical-addled U.S. troops. This climax has the unfortunate effect of making it unlikely anyone will believe in the existence of drug gangs within the U.S. military, even if this was, apparently, rooted in fact.
Miramax picked this one up on the strength of its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in 2001 . . . only to find within days that the 9/11 attacks radically changed the marketability of a movie that spends the bulk of its running time bashing the U.S. military. Five times the film was set for release, and five times it was postponed. But calling "Buffalo Soldiers" a controversial flick would be ascribing to it a weight it doesn't deserve.