docudramatica: fahrenheit 9/11 • supersize me

The plaintiffs argued that McDonald’s should be held accountable for the girls’ obesity, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and other health problems, while McDonald’s lawyers contended that the food giant’s products were ‘nutritious’ and ‘not that fattening….”


by marc covert


Summer moviegoers typically pile into their local multiplexes to suck up air conditioning and stuff their faces with popcorn and Milk Duds as they take in a steady stream of lightheaded pap and over-the-top action epics, but the summer of 2004 has seen two of the most successful documentaries of all time take the country by storm: Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me and Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. Both Spurlock and Moore are gunning for big game indeed, two of the biggest, most powerful targets in America: burger behemoth McDonald’s and U.S. president George W. Bush.

Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me is definitely the Cinderella story of the two. Spurlock has toiled for some 12 years in the film industry, working on commercials, music videos, and programs for ESPN, NBC, Fox, Sony, and MTV. In March 2002 he began production of I Bet You Will, a gross-out stunt show on MTV which proved to be a minor hit but was canceled in August 2002. He took the money he made from that show and poured it into the project that would become Super Size Me, spurred on by his outrage over statements by McDonald’s lawyers concerning a lawsuit filed by two girls from the Bronx. The plaintiffs argued that McDonald’s should be held accountable for the girls’ obesity, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and other health problems, while McDonald’s lawyers contended that the food giant’s products were “nutritious” and “not that fattening.”

The story got Spurlock to thinking: “What would happen if someone were to eat nothing but McDonald’s food for a full month?” He decides to do exactly that, eating and drinking nothing that does not come over the shiny counter of a McDonald’s for the entire 30 days, and to monitor his health with the help of nutritionists, dieticians, and doctors throughout the process. This provides the hook for the entire movie, which has done quite well for a documentary—it’s won Spurlock the Best Director prize at the 2003 Sundance Festival, and the movie has taken in over $10 million since it opened in early summer.

The results of his experiment are predictable but still shocking when you hear his doctors declaring his liver a disaster zone barely 20 days into the McDiet. Spurlock packed 25 lbs. onto his 6’2” frame, broke out in cold sweats on a regular basis, developed splitting headaches and depression that only went away when he partook of McGoodies, and got a rather frank on-camera appraisal of his dive-bombing sexual prowess from his disgusted girlfriend.

You can only watch Spurlock choking down double Quarter Pounders and fries for so long before it becomes a bit tedious, but his use of animated fast-food factoids and traveling interviews does a good job of keeping the audience in the game. Much of what you see shouldn’t surprise anyone, especially those who have read Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation—a group of kids can’t identify Jesus Christ from a pile of photos, but they can tell you exactly who Ronald McDonald is—but Spurlock’s role as imperiled guinea pig goes Schlosser one better. Schlosser admits right from the outset of his book that he ate a lot of fast food over three years of researching Fast Food Nation, and that “most of it tasted pretty good.” It would be safe to assume, however, that Schlosser had the good sense to intersperse his diet of burgers, shakes, fries, Burrito Supremes, and extra crispy KFC meals with some actual fruit, vegetables, and other non-lethal foods.

So what sort of effect has Spurlock’s film had as a result of its success? Ultimately, you can’t expect McDonald’s to become something it is not and has never been—a purveyor of strictly wholesome, nutritious food. Take away everything in a Big Mac that’s bad for you and you’ll end up with a triple-decker bun and a handful of shredded lettuce; take away everything in a Big Mac that just doesn’t have any real nutritional value and you’ll end up with a small pile of sesame seeds. Spurlock likes to point out that, within weeks of his movie’s release, McDonald’s announced the phasing out of their super-size option; while not coming right out and taking credit, he does take great, sly delight in the timing of their move. Of course McDonald’s claims, most likely correctly, that the elimination of super-sizing was under consideration for years and had nothing to do with Super Size Me. In any event, Spurlock takes many well-deserved swipes at McDonald’s and the fast-food industry, but ultimately his point is this: there wouldn’t be a huge fast-food industry fattening up the American populace if there wasn’t such a great demand for their grease-infused gutbombs. If Super Size Me can play a role in educating Americans about the bad food choices they absent-mindedly make and the dreadful health problems awaiting them on the near horizon, his month-long Golden Starches binge will not have been in vain.

Compelling as it may be, Super Size Me comes in second when compared to the gravitas of Michael Moore’s thermonuclear attack on the Bush administration, Fahrenheit 9/11. The controversy ignited by F9/11 has played out along predictable lines—Bill O’Reilly needed two tries to get through it and was (surprise!) apoplectic; the Bush camp has kept its collective lip buttoned while hoping with all their hearts to get John Kerry to say anything even remotely complimentary about the film (to no success of which I am aware); and any mention of Rush Limbaugh’s take on Moore’s films is hardly necessary in the first place. Even 83-year-old science fiction author Ray Bradbury is pissed off at Moore because “…he stole my title [Fahrenheit 451] and changed the numbers without ever asking me for permission,” according to a recent interview in Sweden’s Dagens Nyheter newspaper. But possibly the most devastating critique of F9/11 and its creator comes from the utterly fearless, ferociously brilliant writer Christopher Hitchens. Never one to pass up a chance to inflict a set of swollen stones on the likes of Noam Chomsky, Henry Kissinger, or the late Mother Teresa of Calcutta (who he’s pounded on mercilessly and convincingly in print and in interviews since the publication of his book, The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, 1995, which you will likely not find featured in your local book club), Hitchens seems to come completely unglued over Fahrenheit 9/11 in his June 21 column in Slate . Even I was shocked to see the degree of personal vitriol he unleashed on Moore. While it’s always best to read Hitchens articles in their entirety, and to pay attention as you do, it’s hard to read excerpted statements like “To describe this film as dishonest and demagogic would almost be to promote those terms to the level of respectability…To describe this film as a piece of crap would be to run the risk of a discourse that would never again rise above the excremental” or “I never quite know whether Moore is as ignorant as he looks, or even if that would be humanly possible” and have any inkling that you may be taking his words out of context.

But you can’t deny Michael Moore’s everyman appeal, and there is a wicked pleasure to be had in seeing him belly-buck Shrek II or Harry Potter off of the top of the heap when it comes to summer movie attendance. And there is no denying that F9/11 had been successful beyond Moore’s wildest dreams—its total gross as of July 27 was $103.35 million, making it the top-grossing documentary of all time, as well as the first ever to take the number one box office spot. In fact it knocked his own Academy Award-winning documentary, Bowling for Columbine, out of the top spot at $21.6 million in its first weekend. It also won top honor at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival in May, giving disgruntled American blowhards just one more reason to hate those pesky French.

Anyone who has seen Roger and Me, The Big One, Bowling for Columbine, or any of Moore’s other works will immediately recognize F9/11 as classic Michael Moore, complete with camera-toting ambushes of unsuspecting Washington politicians. At first their eyes light up as he approaches, instinctively delighted by the sight of rolling cameras. Then comes the delicious moment when they turn pale and scurry off in full, bug-eyed panic as soon as they realize who they’re talking to.
Moore doesn’t propel F9/11 quite as personally as you see in his earlier work, preferring to stay in the background and narrate rather than always pushing things along in person on camera. His film opens with a now-familiar litany of outrages perpetrated by the Bush administration, starting with the stolen 2000 election and working its way through what was not shaping up to be a good first year for Mr. Bush. The clock is ticking, however, and everyone in the theater knows what’s coming—I could sense a palpable pall of dread settling over the audience when I saw the movie, and I myself was not looking forward to seeing the images of the planes hitting the towers on September 11. Moore chooses to let the sounds of that horrible day tell the story as the screen goes blank, eventually cutting to images of horrified onlookers, no further visuals being necessary. The first real punch to the gut comes with a woman crying “Oh my God they’re jumping,” again, no images needed. Moore’s movies do have their lighter moments, including F9/11, but they really take a back seat after hearing that.

It’s hard to put a finger on why some of his footage is so unsettling—it’s no secret that recruiters from the Marine Corps or any of the other military branches aggressively pursue young men and women from disadvantaged areas; it’s an all-volunteer military, after all. The only way that is likely to change is through reinstating the draft, and it’s a safe bet that is not an idea any politician is even willing to float, at least for now. And the beginning and ending shots of Bush, John Ashcroft, Dick Cheney, and Colin Powell preparing for television appearances—mostly by being preened and prettied up by makeup artists and fawning assistants—shouldn’t surprise anyone either, but…well, it was just plain eerie to see these guys in such a behind-the-scenes context. We are so outside the world of Washington politics that we are completely shut off from the realities of newsbite journalism and public image-making, and to see it in action in Moore’s film seems to come as a shock to most viewers.

It’s easy to see why Moore’s images of the Iraq war and its effects both at home and abroad are so disturbing. The violence and bloodshed suffered by both sides are shown in vivid detail, not gratuitously, but Moore comes close. American soldiers’ shattered limbs after a roadside bombing are tough to see, and images of dead Iraqi children and civilians pummel viewers as well, but without a doubt, the most moving segment of this movie is the story of Flint, Michigan mother Lila Lipscomb, whose son, 26-year-old U.S. Army sergeant Michael Pederson, was killed two weeks into the war when his Blackhawk helicopter was shot down. Lipscomb considers herself a life-long patriot, demonstrably so, but the loss of her son drives her to question everything she holds dear. Ultimately she comes to the conclusion that her son died in a war that was declared on a lie, and her painful realization provides some of the most powerful moments in the film.

Two men I went to high school with have lost family members in Iraq—one lost his 19-year-old stepson, the other his 21-year-old nephew—but I haven’t seen either of them in at least five years; I haven’t listened to them reading their loved ones’ last letters home; I haven’t seen them break down with their families in unbearable grief. Their families have suffered as privately and bravely as the families of the other 900-plus U.S. men and women who have been killed in George Bush’s war. It’s still an entirely impersonal war to the vast majority of American citizens, which makes Lila Lipscomb’s on-screen agony over the death of her son all the more striking and heartbreaking and important. I haven’t encountered theater weepers since I saw Titanic years ago, but during the wrenching scene where she reads her dead son’s last letter home, they were all around me. And these weren’t pre-pubescents blubbering over Leonardo DiCaprio being frozen hard as a carp in a watery grave. I hardly find her story’s central role in F9/11 to be exploitative or manipulative on Moore’s part. Lila Lipscomb’s pain and heartbreak take place in real life and are presented as such—probably the greatest strength of the documentary genre as a whole, and one not trifled with by Moore in Fahrenheit 9/11.


Originally published:
Issue Thirty-Two
September 2004





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