Daring to fight the Golden Arches
In 1986, Helen Steel and Dave Morris, as part of the nonprofit London Greenpeace, distributed a pamphlet called "What's Wrong With...
Seattle Times movie critic
In 1986, Helen Steel and Dave Morris, as part of the nonprofit London Greenpeace, distributed a pamphlet called "What's Wrong With McDonald's," detailing accusations against the fast-food giant: unhealthful food, exploitation of workers, damage to the environment, cruelty to animals. McDonald's sued five members of the group for libel; three backed down and apologized, but Steel and Morris refused. Thus began the longest trial in British history (314 days), captured efficiently in Franny Armstrong's documentary "McLibel."
The film, like the two plaintiffs, has a refreshingly down-to-earth quality to it; "McLibel" was clearly made on a budget that would barely buy a few Happy Meals. And Steel, a gardener, and Morris, a postman and single dad, are soft-spoken regular folks right out of Central Casting. (The two are longtime friends but not a couple.)
Their reticence, though, creates a problem: We never really get a sense of why these people would devote so many years to this lopsided battle. Steel and Morris seem uncomfortable with the limelight and the camera; they're the flip side of Morgan Spurlock, who cheerfully lived his life before a lens for his anti-fast-food doc "Super Size Me." Perhaps the reason is really as simple as Steel and Morris say: They wouldn't apologize because they weren't wrong.
But watching Steel tend bar late at night to support herself during their exhausting efforts, and hearing Morris tell how his relationship with his son deteriorated because of the distractions of the trial, makes you wonder why these people stuck it out. In this reality-TV era, it's rather charming to meet people who clearly don't want to reveal their souls to strangers, but it leaves a bit of a hole in the film. Steel and Morris are earnest and likable but remain a bit of a mystery.
And Armstrong is hampered by being unable to bring her camera into the courtroom. She solves the problem, with mixed success, by using actors (and Steel and Morris) to re-create a few scenes from the trial, using dialogue from the transcripts. Though these segments are directed by an experienced filmmaker (British director Ken Loach, acclaimed for "Land and Freedom," "My Name is Joe," and many others), they feel stagy and flat, set against a plain black screen.
But you find yourself forgiving "McLibel" its flaws. This film is, at its heart, an irresistible David-and-Goliath tale. Though many of the charges against McDonald's will be familiar to those who've seen "Super Size Me" or read "Fast Food Nation" (whose author, Eric Schlosser, appears in this film), Armstrong condenses them effectively into a compelling narrative. As Steel and Morris, at the end, wave shyly to a cheering crowd, it's a hero's farewell, and you can't help but cheer along.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org