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Rated:Not Rated
Studio:Cinema Libre Distribution
Director:Franny Armstrong
Cast:Helen Steel, Dave Morris
Release Date:2005
Our Rating:

Maybe you can't fight city hall and maybe you can, but the rousing documentary McLibel proves that you can at least stand up to Mayor McCheese and live to talk about it. If you're less than thrilled with the idea of having a McDonald's on every other block, the movie contends, it's both your right and your duty to cry foul. You just have to spit the McNuggets out of your mouth first.

That message is hardly without precedent. It's in evidence every week on the FX channel, where 30 Days creator/host Morgan Spurlock is parlaying the success of his own burger-bashing doc, Super Size Me, into an inspiring image as an all-purpose cultural inquisitor. Scenes of Spurlock's seminal experiment in reckless living are repeated near the tail end of McLibel – by definition, you can't say a bad word about Mickey D's these days without mentioning him – but on many levels, the two films are as different as French fries and foie gras. Where Super Size Me was a slick, vaudevillian salvo that reveled in the ability of a single American to poke holes in corporate irresponsibility, the proudly low-tech McLibel reverses the roles, showing what happens when a multinational behemoth like McDonald's elects to pursue legal action against the private citizens who dare to criticize it.

Such intimidation has apparently been easier to perpetrate in England, mother country of documentary subjects Helen Steel and Dave Morris. A couple of homely, heroic progressives with more political passion than personal charisma, they once made the critical move of distributing leaflets that assailed McDonald's' policies on a variety of fronts, from customer nutrition to worker relations to animal cruelty. What ensued was a 15-year battle climaxing in a 314-day trial – the longest in British history – with the fast-food giant claiming injury to its reputation. Not only did the company have almost limitless legal resources upon which to draw, it was greatly aided by the nation's libel laws, which at the time of the case placed a severe burden of proof on defendants while denying them the right to state-provided counsel. Steel and Morris had some assistance from a barrister who had volunteered his services, but in court, they had to defend themselves every day for the two and a half long years the trial was in session.

McLibel uncovers the fortitudinous personalities behind that nightmare marathon. A single dad, Morris is heard bemoaning the countless "negative" images society is throwing at his young son; from fast food to the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, he appears never to have met a commercial influence he didn't consider unhealthy. Steel seems a good sight more down to earth, recalling how in childhood her mother taught her to cope with a neighborhood bully by landing a few blows of her own. The movie explores the mesh of Steel's and Morris' personalities, which came to border on the fractious as the case wore on and overwork took its toll. Steel was diagnosed with exhaustion, a medical crisis that engendered no delay in the proceedings on the part of the unsympathetic judge.

The film is as scruffy and scrappy as its protagonists. So invigorating is its crusading spirit that you forgive the clumsy courtroom re-enactments, in which Morris (who is nobody's actor, let alone matinee idol) awkwardly reprises his real-life interrogations of McDonald's executives. Played against a stark black background, these stilted setups have all the naturalistic nonchalance of E!'s Michael Jackson coverage. But for every second you spend squirming in discomfort, you enjoy five minutes of awe at the expertise with which filmmaker Franny Armstrong (who directed the movie but not the courtroom scenes) advances the defendants' arguments. McDonald's, the movie persuasively demonstrates, really is insidious. Its mechanized workplace procedures, long touted as exemplars of efficient uniformity, are designed to keep minimum-wage workers uniformly expendable – as expendable as the cute baby chicks we see gassed en masse in a clandestine "behind-the-scenes" video. In intercut interview segments, Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser explains how the company's many infractions, from rainforest devastation to false advertising, add up to a comprehensive pattern of bad citizenship.

A 15-year study is bound to uncover some dichotomies, and the movie exploits some while turning a blind eye to others. To help pay her bills, Steel takes a job pouring drinks at a nightclub, and praises the pastime as relaxing; if this proponent of healthful living is at all cognizant that she's pushing a product at least as harmful as Quarter Pounders, she doesn't let on. Far more astute is a thread in which the demands on Morris' time drive a wedge between him and his son, who's forced to spend his playtime hours in the company of ... Ronald McDonald. (A former Ronald impersonator named Geoff Giuliano compares his former job to that of a Nazi propaganda minister; he's one of several repentant ex-employees who show up to act as the movie's ersatz David Brocks.)

Whatever one thinks of the defendants' claims – and the movie makes them all but impossible to discount – the weight of those allegations is ultimately secondary (from a story standpoint, anyway) to any concerned individual's right to advance them. Caught secretly on audiotape, a McDonald's representative chastises Morris and Steel for "choosing" to live in a country that places significant restrictions on their speech. "You've had your day in the sun," they're told. Faced with such blithe McArrogance, one doesn't know whether to laugh or to shudder.

There's always a third option: standing up and cheering at the example Morris and Steel set with their long-running show of public defiance. The light they shined on bad-faith corporate maneuvering – and, as we learn, that light has since come to shine worldwide – renders the outcome of their specific case almost moot. McLibel made me want to boycott McDonald's, turn vegetarian and even punch a clown or two on principle. But most of all, it restored my faith that the power to shape public discourse really rests with the people and not the PR agents. I'm lovin' it.

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