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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Documentary Deception

I enjoy good documentaries, and have included several of them in my Movies You Might Not Know list, from "Hoop Dreams" to "Comedian" to "The Smartest Guys In The Room" to "Shut Up and Sing" to "Iraq For Sale" to "Man on Wire." But one of the problems with documentaries can be the filmmaker's willingness to edit the footage and write the narration to suit an agenda.

Which brings me to Morgan Spurlock. I have enjoyed some of his work, including the "30 Days" series he did for FX a few years ago, particularly one episode in which he embedded himself with a coal mining family in West Virginia and went down to work in a mine every day to show what that life was like. He did another where Spurlock and his fiance tried to live for a month on nothing but minimum wage jobs. He's done some interesting work along the same lines on his new CNN series, "Inside Man," and did an entire movie about product placement called "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold." The man knows how to create reality-based entertainment.

That said, I've always had a problem with the project that made Spurlock famous in the first place, "Supersize Me," where he ate nothing but McDonald's food for every meal for a month. At the end of the experiment, he had gained weight, developed liver problems, and become lethargic. It seemed like a damning tale of the impact of fast-food on all Americans, but my skeptical mind saw some red flags.

When I discussed the movie with Spurlock in 2004, we talked about how his then-fiance was a vegan chef who cooked for them at home, so introducing all of that beef and fried food into his diet would naturally screw up a metabolism that wasn't used to it. That's a point he didn't include in the movie, which seems relevant to me. We also discussed personal vs. corporate responsibility about what goes into our mouths. He also responded to criticism from Soso Whaley, another guest of mine who also ate at McDonald's every day for a month and ended up losing weight.

This morning, I read a piece called "Six Famous Documentaries That Were Shockingly Full Of Crap," by Amanda Mullen, in which she takes on Spurlock's claim that he was consuming 5,000 calories a day on his all-McDonald's diet:

As Tom Naughton points out in his documentary, Fat Head, there's simply no way Spurlock could have been eating that much food if he was sticking to his own rules. A large Big Mac meal clocks in at "just" 1,450 calories, and it's by far one of the fattiest items on the menu. This means that even Supersizing lunch and dinner every day and adding dessert falls well short of the 5,000 calories a day Spurlock's nutritionist claims he was consuming. In an effort to find out just exactly what the hell, Naughton attempted to contact Spurlock to obtain his food log, but Spurlock (who makes a huge deal in his documentary about McDonald's never calling him back) never called him back.
Meanwhile, researchers from the Making Sure Movies Aren't Stupid department of Sweden's University of Linkoping tried to replicate Spurlock's experiment by tasking healthy college students with the challenge of eating 6,000 calories of fast food per day, inadvertently also answering the question "What's the easiest way to get guinea pigs ever?" At the end of the 30 days, the students had none of the liver or cholesterol troubles Spurlock reported. According to the guy in charge of the experiment (aka an actual scientist, not the guy who created MTV's I Bet You Will), the students' metabolism was able to adapt to the extra amount of food they were eating. They did feel more tired, but none of them experienced the mood swings and depression Spurlock claimed to have endured.
Mullen's piece also points out agenda-driven deceptions in other documentaries, including "Waiting For Superman," Bill Maher's "Religilous," "Searching For Sugarman," "Nanook Of The North," and even one of the most beautiful docs I've ever seen, "Winged Migration." Read it here.

Previously on Harris Online...