McDonald's turned 50 this year. And, like many 50-year-olds, Ronald is in the thick of a midlife crisis. Yet, in contrast with the pencil-pushing, righteous-living ways of many who feel the urge to indulge their inner adolescents, McDonald's has gotten all the play out of the way. The Happy Meal lifestyle couldn't last forever, much as the joy that comes from shoving a Big Mac down your craw and following it with a haystack of fries turns inevitably bilious and dyspeptic. So now McDonald's is on a bit of a health kick, pushing salads and apple slices instead of slobbery sandwiches and snotty apple pies.
Deprived of the interior tick of mortality that often occasions a Porsche-buying spree, McDonald's found an unusual motivation for its revamp: the one-two punch of Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation and Morgan Spurlock's garish science-project of a documentary, Super Size Me. After Schlosser exposed horrifying facts about the fast food industry (there's poo in the meat, dawg!) and Spurlock turned gassy and grey after his month-long McFest Quest, McDonald's had to respond. It rose from the grease fire, newly svelte and shapely -- and as slick as ever.
Or maybe not, if McLibel has anything to do with it. Franny Armstrong's new documentary takes a huge bite out of the attempt by McDonald's to create a shiny new image for itself. Filmed over a period of 10 years, McLibel tracks English activists Helen Steel and Dave Morris as they battle libel charges that McDonald's filed against them. Their alleged crime? Distributing leaflets that warned of the restaurant's unfair work conditions, manipulative kid-focused advertising, and its negative impacts on consumer health and the environment.
McLibel starts out in the infotainment/propaganda vein now so familiar to weary documentary viewers: Armstrong unreels background context ("A friendly clown persuaded children to love the company") in Star Wars fashion, giant yellow type receding into black. Fussy British actors play opposite Steel and Morris in court-scene reenactments -- very McMasterpiece Theatre.. But despite the bells and whistles, and unapologetic partisanship, McLibel remains a complex and fascinating film, with heroes all the more convincing for their unflashy devotion to their cause.