Why are we so, so sick? Could it be because of what we eat? Possibly?
Dir. Lee Fulkerson, 2011, 96 min, Viewed via Hulu
I’ve often argued against the small-minded thinking that limits documentaries to the confines of the academic or journalistic realms. I think life must be very boring for people who can’t conceive of a nonfiction film made purely for artistic or entertaining purposes. But such viewers will be absolutely thrilled with Forks Over Knives.
That sounds like a slam. It isn’t. This is a good little movie. It’s a well-researched piece of agitprop against America’s current standards of food and health care. It’s just extremely dry. Desert-dry. It wasn’t a deal-breaker for me, because being a movie critic (or really, any kind of film lover) with any measure of taste means engaging with, or even loving, a lot of boring films. And I learned a lot from this doc. But others will easily nod off during it, and I honestly can’t blame them for that.
Lee Fulkerson pulled a Spurlock and decided to see what would happen if he overhauled his eating habits. But his experiment was the opposite of Spurlock’s; rather than gorge on terrible fast food, he switched to a fruit and vegetable-heavy, whole foods-based diet. The result, as you might expect, was that all aspects of his health drastically improved. The film doesn’t focus much on his venture, though. Rather, it explores the various factors contributing to our country’s epidemics of obesity, heart disease, cancer, and other maladies we didn’t used to see nearly as much of.
We’re told that animal products like meat or dairy are part of a “balanced diet,” but is that really true? The evidence seems to suggest otherwise. Fulkerson and his subjects, in fact, are arguing against eating too much of any of that in general. In this respect, the doc is quite similar to Vegucated, although it takes a much more scientific approach, rather than leaning toward emotional appeals. Writ brief, industry (and, of course, its political puppets) is in favor of the status quo, and that means producing as much processed food as possible. The USDA, the people writing our standards for healthy food, have no incentive to do right by the American people. Their job is to protect the interests of farmers, after all. Add in the fact that sicker people means more spent on health care, and it becomes quite profitable not try to improve the public’s health.
If Fulkerson and the doc were content with sticking to statistics and studies and not attempting to entertain, it’d be fine (seriously, there’s nothing wrong with that). It’s just that it sporadically tries to be funny, and those moments are unbearably awkward. The nadir of this is an animated sequence (illustrating the motivational triad) that includes obliquely depicted shark sex (it makes sense in context, but is no less weird). No matter what tone a movie decides to take, it should always strive to stay true to it. I say this again and again, and I’ll say it until people learn (so I’ll always be saying it, in other words).
Forks Over Knives has pushed me even further towards considering a vegetarian diet (honestly, I’d jump right in if I wasn’t having enough trouble budgeting myself). It makes its argument very well. But it’s forgettable. Super Size Me has fewer facts, but it’s more informative, because it knows how to make its message lodge in the brain. I’ll remember this doc, because I remember everything, but it won’t do as much as it could have towards convincing people to reform their eating habits.