It may win the prize for best title of an issue film, but Fed Up is otherwise your standard fare as far as these kinds of documentaries go. It’s about the obesity epidemic, primarily in America, and how the fight against it has been wrongly strategized for the past 30 years. There’s a lot of good information and some effective devices employed to get at the audience’s heart as well as mind, but when all is said and done, I can’t help but wonder who a movie like this is for. Who wants to pay $10 or more to watch a bunch of talking heads make claims about how the food industry and government have made the problem even worse over the years? This shouldn’t be the content of a theatrical release (though I’d love to see the ironic folks watching this while chowing down on popcorn and candy from the concession stand). It should be distributed free, at least to the poor. Maybe as a pamphlet rather than a film.
Fed Up is executive produced and narrated by Katie Couric, giving it a journalistic sensibility that many issue films these days lack. This isn’t to say it necessarily has more integrity or truth, but it does come off as a work of news reportage in the skin of a conventional doc. Almost akin to something CBS would have aired back in the days of Friendly and Murrow yet not in their style. I just keep thinking of how a documentary special like their piece on migrant workers, Harvest of Shame, could reach so many people and actually have an influence on Congress (though apparently ABC News had a special on obesity a few months later that wasn’t nearly as successful). We have too many choices now for something like this to be as widely seen in that setting. Yet television would still be the most appropriate outlet. Public television, though, because it would be a tough program to find advertisers for.
After tackling a lot of material that should be familiar to most Americans and following it up with some of the newer and less obvious points – namely why the “fat free” trend was such a misstep and why “sugar free,” as in foods with sugar substitutes, is also working against us – director Stephanie Soechtig (Tapped), with help from the usual experts (Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle in particular are pretty much movie stars at this point) and writer Mark Monroe (The Cove), focuses the film on the systemic nature of this issue. Basically, the food industry is too greedy to do the right thing with what it offers and markets, especially to children, and the government is too weak and corrupt to stand up against that lobby, and it’s a situation that will be hard to break. It seems almost as daunting a problem as those of docs on the eduction system or the prison industrial complex, except there’s a main difference with the obesity issue in that on an individual level there has always been simple, basic solutions here.
Of course, personal responsibility was also a factor in the issue with tobacco, and that industry was eventually dealt with over time through legislative decisions on how it can advertise its product. Fed Up likes to compare the food industry to Big Tobacco, albeit with an inadequate emphasis on the equivalence of food and nicotine addiction, in its own campaign against the marketing of sugar cereal, snacks, fast food, etc. The film also doesn’t really address why it was so much easier to damn smoking, which has absolutely no redeeming value, versus food, which will always be a necessity for life, no matter whether its healthy or not. The doc’s biggest setback, though, is in its villainization of the industry for not ceasing to make unhealthy products. Maybe it is evil. But half this country is not going to accept the idea that there should be a curbing of the free enterprise there.
Like any well-produced issue film of today (and this one’s other executive producers include An Inconvenient Truth’s Laurie David and The Invisible War’s Regina Scully), Fed Up fills out the spaces between its rhetoric and archival sound bite footage with human interest stories. Here they go specifically with severely overweight children, each of whom provides webcam testimonials that go pretty far with their emotional punch. These subjects are also followed through their days by the documentary crew; we meet their families and see them at school, senselessly eating junk at lunch in spite of claiming to be, or wanting to be, on a diet. Because they’re kids, we want to look to their parents for some culpability in the metabolic disease they suffer. When the doc highlights special programs and assemblies and touring nutritionists making a different with some students around the country, you have to wonder where these things are for the moms and dads. Maybe that’s where Fed Up comes in, to ignite their eduction on the issue.
The question is whether docs like this work. We’ve seen plenty of food industry issue films in recent years, most notably the Oscar-nominated features Super Size Me and Food, Inc., and just two years ago there was a lengthier look at the obesity epidemic in HBO’s docuseries The Weight of the Nation, which itself followed the fairly popular Killer At Large. Other docs, like Ingredients and Forks Over Knives, have come out promoting healthier eating as the answer. Fed Up attempts to pack all that into 92 minutes plus have some extraneous filler, namely an interview with Bill Clinton that adds very little other than the appeal of his presence.
And ultimately it does work on a number of the levels it wishes to. It’s just not a doc that will reach far enough, not to the anti-nanny-state crowd and not to the obese Americans who just don’t care, especially not for the price of a movie ticket. The people who are already aware of much of its content and are regularly concerned about the epidemic will eat it up – pun intended because in doing so they’re ironically just consuming something they ought to already be full of.
The Upside: Strong and sometimes fresh information about where America is going wrong with the obesity epidemic and food addiction problem; very effective use of kids to reach the audience on an emotional level in addition to churning out data; nice take down of Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation head Lisa Gable’s pr-speak spin cycle.
The Downside: This isn’t information that should be on a movie screen for $10–15; takes too long to get to the positive, solution-oriented side of the issue and the human-interest narratives; mostly useless interview with Clinton.
On the Side: As with most issue films, this is just a stepping stone for you to learn more and take action (via the doc’s website); and like most issue films, this one has already inspired sites with defensive information in response to its content (such as one from the Grocery Manufacturers Association).