“Nothing works like a world changer” reads a young teen’s T-shirt in American Meat, and indeed the documentary’s strengths and weaknesses both flow from filmmaker Graham Meriwether’s rose-colored insistence that things are slowly getting better. Meriwether and his skeleton crew profile farmers and dairies across the United States; ribbons of interviews are used to frame the larger trends that have shaped the industry over the last several years. The opening gambit—a scene wherein a poultry farmer shakes her head, stunned, at the notion of eating her own chickens because she knows them personally—suggests darker shades of contradiction in farm culture.
The inherent narrative potential in these people’s stories can be staggering: One farmer, well into his 70s, has to take over a much younger man’s poultry barns after he’s killed in a tragic accident, raising his two young boys to be competent and committed while pushing back against old age. But overall, Meriwether’s view is more quantitative than immersive, or sample-bound than panoramic; this isn’t an artist’s documentary. Beyond-crude CGI infographics and a young woman’s honeyed voiceover (backed up by the inevitable folksy cello/piano/guitar accompaniment) soothingly lay out the recent depreciation of U.S. meat’s overseas exports against these hard-luck stories. The overall effect is a little bit like hearing a straight-A student discovering Marxist production models for the very first time. The filmmakers come out (unsurprisingly) in favor of grass-fed, humanely grown, organic, pesticide-free product, but do so without latching too intently onto any one farmer or expert. The exception is Joel Salatin, introduced via intertitle as “Lunatic Farmer” after arguing that fertilizer should be both “aesthetically and aromatically pleasant.”
Salatin quickly becomes American Meat’s hero, and his company, Polyface, which pays buyers directly, and thus spends more money than any other depicted in the film on its “welfare-compassionate pigs,” a model case for the new generation of meat farmers. At one point Salatin denounces the “globalist agenda” of office workers, arguing that the only way the country’s food supply can improve is if more people take farming seriously as a way of life. His paradigm—and, it would seem, Meriwether’s—is that if pigs are happy, consumers get a better product, and if consumers get a better product, they’ll buy smarter, even if it’s more expensive. The chef at a seasonal, locally sourced restaurant indicates his crème brûlée and asserts that customers know, just from looking, when the dessert is made with healthier eggs and when it isn’t. Choice, it seems, is everything.
On this score, and when it comes to hard number-crunching in general, Meriwether’s reasoning falls short of his earnest ambitions. American Meat avers, rather jubilantly, that the amount of arable land for animals to live outdoors and eat natural grass, as opposed to mass-produced corn and soy hybrids, is hundreds of millions of square miles. The good news? The continental United States contains well over a billion. Content to leave it at that, the doc pushes a simultaneously mush-minded idea of connect-the-dots consumer empowerment while non-accusingly outlining everything that’s wrong with our (massive, massively complicated) food-distribution system. Late in the film, attention is heaped on Whole Foods, Applegate, and Chipotle, gestures which—whatever the real accomplishments of these companies in shifting away from mass-produced foods—ring creepily of fealty. Despite the intensity of its scope and research, American Meat is a decidedly soft-hitting display of an overweening good faith that, frankly, just can’t jibe with the times.