Americans are not only getting dumber and angrier by the day, we’re a fat fucking lot to boot. As of this moment, we are far and way the fattest nation in the history of the earth, with cities like Houston, Detroit, and Dallas leading the pack. Mississippi is also our fattest state, and obesity in the young is so rampant that diabetes threatens to wipe us out like a plague. From our chips to our candy, our sugar to our saturated fats, we are guzzling, choking, inhaling, and literally shitting our lives away in a stench-filled blizzard of consumption. If it’s big, we’ll eat it. And if it’s bigger than that, we’ll take two. America, in the simplest possible terms, is a beached whale; and we have the heart disease, strokes, liver damage, and respiratory failure to prove it. For all our talk about saving the world, the only thing we’ve done with any amount of success is export our gluttony; for the other nations of the world, now packed to the gills with our fast, convenient, and cheap products — especially food — are following our massive thighs and barn-sized asses into an early grave. That’s what it means to be an American.
Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me, a charming, eye-opening, and hilarious documentary, charts this societal sickness by having its subject eat nothing but McDonald’s for 30 days. For one month, Spurlock can only eat that which is on the McDonald’s menu, and he must eat three full meals a day. Even more, he must super size his meal when asked. He mainly stays close to home in New York City, but he also visits restaurants in Washington D.C., Texas, and Illinois. Also, in keeping with the American spirit, he is not allowed to exercise outside of the normal walking he does in the course of a day. He manages to evade most of this, however, by taking more cabs and even having his food delivered. Checking with a team of doctors before his experiment, Morgan is a pillar of health; his heart looks great, his organs are running like clocks, and his blood tests reveal a man who could handle just about any physical challenge. As he checks in throughout the 30 days, he begins to put on a great deal of weight, loses his sexual drive, remains nauseous and lethargic most of the time, has chest pains and difficulty breathing, and worst of all, faces liver damage that approximates advanced alcoholism.
If the film were about Morgan’s physical meltdown alone, it still would have been wonderfully entertaining, but Spurlock is after bigger game here. While he never dismisses the idea of personal responsibility, he does take on the marketing behemoth of the fast food industry and their power to influence the willing whores in Congress. Worst of all, he believes, is the brand recognition, a startling fact where the giants of junk act as pushers in a nation that has all but lost its collective will power. This is brought home in an amusing segment where Spurlock presents some pictures for young children to identify. George Washington is recognized by only a few and Jesus not at all (which is fine by me, except that one kid thinks it is George W. Bush), but each and every one of them knew who Ronald McDonald was. His image seemed to produce a Pavlovian response, as they called for burgers and fries within seconds. Spurlock also takes a few folks aside and while they all butchered the Pledge of Allegiance, no one dropped the ball on the Big Mac jingle. It should come as no surprise that in a nation of an increasingly diminished vocabulary, commercial slogans and banal song lyrics should come to substitute for meaningful conversation. We not only eat the shit, we live it.
Spurlock also takes us to America’s schools, where the lunch programs are becoming increasingly worse; more disastrous, even, than the days when Reagan tried to sneak through ketchup as a vegetable. Kids are surrounded by processed crap and artificial garbage, encouraged to drink soda after soda by a school administration needing to make up revenue lost to budget cuts. Eric Schlosser’s brilliant Fast Food Nation covered similar territory, exposing the corporate impact on desperate schools, from ubiquitous vending machines to gymnasiums named after members of the Fortune 500. While we all seem to agree that the government should never dictate what we learn and how we learn it, the great masses of Americans remain silent when it comes to fattening up our young people like they were being prepared for slaughter. For many, a school lunch is the only opportunity to have a decent meal all day, and our schools are turning a blind eye as kids sit in the corner with a sugar and caffeine IV. And with our national obsession over math and science test scores (thanks again, Dubya), health courses are almost certain to suffer, a fact compounded by the push to keep our children blissfully ignorant of sexual matters. Condoms give you AIDS, pre-marital sex leads to cancer, and a diet of Kit-Kats and Pepsi is sufficiently well-balanced — that is the school room vision of the current cocksuckers in Washington.
Spurlock finally comes to the end of his experiment, much to the relief of his long-suffering girlfriend. After several weeks of eating right and getting back to a normal lifetstyle, Spurlock sheds his excess pounds and his innards return to their pre-binge state. The film has been criticized in some quarters for unfairly targeting McDonald’s when, as they point out, just about anything done to excess for a month will harm the body. That charge may in fact be true, but they miss the larger point. Spurlock is right to shed light on the fact that while we have demonized smoking to the extent that lighting up makes one a friend of evil, junk food has largely gotten a pass. More than that, eating itself has escaped a great amount of scrutiny. Smokers are Hitler, yet political correctness keeps us from castigating those who hide their pain in an extra large pizza. We still allow kids to be targeted by substances that are far more dangerous than say, a joint or a shot of bourbon, which Spurlock believes is part of the problem. But given the fact that McDonald’s spends over $1 billion a year in advertising, media outlets that depend on the big bucks of business are not going to sign on for any large-scale protest. And then you’ll get the assorted suits and bigwigs to pound the airwaves talking about jobs, and capitalism, and freedom of choice, and we’ll nod, see their logic, and keep eating artery-clogging shit while wearing our clothes that have been made by starving and beaten 6-year-old children in some remote Chinese village.
Super Size Me has been one of the most talked about films of the year, and for once that is a good thing. Morgan Spurlock, then, is a voice to watch and hopefully he’ll continue in his muckraking style. And while he’s giving you facts and points to ponder that are in fact good for you, he also knows that a film must above all be a fun ride. And he’s also a profile in courage, putting his health on the line for us; showing us the mirror that we too often take great pains to avoid.