Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 film Super Size Me is an entertaining anecdotal foray into a territory familiar to all Americans: the world of fast food. Accompanied by affable muckraking, the ‘made’ documentary highlights the way America is embroiled in a widespread outbreak of obesity and related health problems, and that fast food is bad for human consumption. It represents a cultural critique, an exploration of America’s vast, seemingly insatiable appetite for highly processed, high-fat fast food that reflects a wide variety of trends, from drawing attention to our widening girths to our shrinking societal perspectives. The companies that sell and advertise legal consumables are responsible for eroding public health by creating and enticing the public to eat and drink the products that cause obesity, heart disease and liver problems; they are literally poisoning us to death.
Spurlock sets off on a one-man crusade to prove the above mentioned film thesis.
The main strength of the film is its ordinary, down-to-earth, very much existent subject – fast food, and the beguiling stranglehold that it has on our cultural consciousness. The documentary is humorous, well intentioned and heart rendering (no pun intended). The plot of the story is well organized around Spurlock as he sets out merrily on an all-Mac eating binge, a 30-day experiment closely monitored by 3 doctors, a nutritionist and his professional vegan cook girlfriend (Alexandra Jamieson). His journey, steeped in bitingly subversive humor, takes him from Manhattan (which has the country’s highest number of McDonald outlets), to California (the McDonald chain birth place), and to Texas (whose inhabitants are the fattest in the country). By the end of his medically horrifying experiment, not only does his weight increase by 18 pounds, but he is also plagued by mood swings, a drooping libido, super-sized stomachache, caffeine-induced headaches, and nearly fatal damage to his liver. There are a lot of informative sequels containing interviews with nutritionists, lawyers, and former U.S surgeon-general David Satcher, all of whom voice strong apprehensions about the onset of dangerous illnesses like heart disease and juvenile diabetes due to society’s addiction to a fast food diet.
The documentary’s primary weakness is contained in the thesis, namely, Spurlock lays the blame for American obsession with fast food solely at the door of the fast food companies, melodramatically seeming to conclude that it’s either them or us – we should kill McDonald’s before McDonald’s kills us. Spurlock’s anti-corporate stance has no conventional, intrinsic or objective foundation for the simple reason that no one is compelling him to voraciously gobble up vast amounts (3 meals a day of Double Quarter Pounder combo meals, oil glistened fries, sausages, hot cakes and super-sugary soft drinks) of McDonald’s food. Ultimately it is we, and not the fast food companies, who are responsible for our health; this fact has been recognized by Congress when, in the aftermath of McDonald’s victory in a lawsuit filed by two overweight teenagers, they passed a bill protecting fast food companies from future liability in such cases. The film also does not recognize the meaning of ‘moderation’ – most of the film’s audience will not identify with Spurlock gorging himself on monstrous meals because our everyday lifestyle cannot and does not permit such extreme behavior. Another weakness is that the film hardly breaks new informational ground – it elaborates on facts that we already know – and if any additional emphasis was needed, Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation had already told it all. Lastly, the documentary’s plot and theme are very similar to the terminal alcoholic binge undertaken by Nicholas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas. The overall effect of Super Size Me is therefore just the loss of your appetite, perhaps accompanied by a subconscious feeling of hardening of your arteries, if you happen to be munching fast food while viewing the documentary.
Super Size Me underscores the need for individuals to take responsibility for their own health. The film received a documentary prize at the Sundance Film Festival, an event that caused the mighty McDonald chain to discreetly eliminate its ‘Super Size menu’: both happenings indicating that the film has definitely struck a responding chord in its audience. There is no doubt that we will continue to live in a fast food-dominated country, but the memory of Super Size Me will arrest our footsteps when we next make a beeline to the nearest Pizza Hut, KFC or McDonald’s.
Spurlock, Morgan. “Super Size Me.” IMDB Movies. 2004.