Forks Over Knives Dir. Lee Fulkerson

[Monica Beach Media; 2010]

Styles: issue docs
Others: Food, Inc., Super Size Me, Fast Food Nation

There’s probably nothing in this documentary that you shouldn’t hear for your own good — eat more vegetables, get exercise, stay off Lipitor — but there’s also not much you haven’t heard before. High fructose corn syrup — whose name alone should send Don’t-Eat signals to any thinking person’s brain — is in everything; red meat and fast food are terrible for you; Americans are obese: type II diabetes, heart disease, and cancer have been rising tremendously since the onslaught of supermarkets and fast food chains pumelled America in the 50s.

As with any expert-riddled piece of pedantry lately, this information is ladled out to us in the form of digital cartoon graphs and ironic newsreel footage. In fact, no trick of the current scolding issue-doc trade is passed over, least of all the man-on-a-mission framework popularized by Michael Moore and deified by Morgan Spurlock. So director/man-on-mission Lee Fulkerson (formerly best known as the writer of an obscure documentary on the Biblical end of days), a bit overweight and addicted to caffeine, visits a pair of attractive young L.A. doctors for a checkup and is told that not only is his blood pressure high, but also how almost every number they generate by testing his health does not bode well for him. Fulkerson sets off on a high-plant diet and in doing so broadcasts the overt agenda behind his film: we are unhealthy, at major risk of major diseases; we need to switch to a vegetable diet and dispose of the notions that have been passed down to us by food corporations and their puppet, the USDA, namely that the products most profitable for them are also the best for us.

That’s not exactly a succinct thesis on my part, and the reason it’s not is that Fulkerson and his documentary are so broad in their aims. Dropping in and out of Forks Over Knives’ 96-minute runtime is Fulkerson’s quest to find out how well vegetables can help him out of his flabby body; as well as the life story of two crusading MDs who’ve been challenging accepted diet doctrine for decades with a well-researched, fact-based, pro-vegetable agenda; as well as personal interest vignettes from diabetics and heart disease sufferers around the country; as well as a condemnation of corporate farming and the backing of it by the USDA; as well as snarky newsreel clips illustrating each point — all topped off by a flurry of proverbs introducing each segment, credited to everyone from Hippocrates to Ancient Chinese. The scattershot approach suggests a filmmaker passionate about his subject, but of course we already know that Fulkerson is convinced because he shows himself practicing what he’s preaching to us. The real interesting questions are not the ones posed by Fulkerson, because we’ve had Michael Pollan, Morgan Spurlock, Carol Simontacchi, Eric Schlosser, and the folks behind Food, Inc. posing them for us for years. They are instead the ones posed by Fulkerson’s two most interesting subjects, the men of science to whom he should have dedicated all of Forks Over Knives’ runtime.

Doctors Caldwell Esselstyn and Colin Campbell have spent decades researching — at first separately and then, recently, as a loose team — the correlation between eating plants and staying healthy. They’ve published widely, spoken around the world, teamed up with the entirety of China to study cancer, and, perhaps most impressively, stayed healthy themselves. Apart from their long lists of medical accolades, the fact that two health advocates in their seventies are clearly more fit than most Americans is probably the best argument for listening to them. The gist of their conclusion is that America’s eating problem, and the health damages it has caused, can be all but wiped out by consuming lots and lots of vegetables.

Not groundbreaking information, but to hear it from two seasoned experts, backed by facts and a lifetime of experience, and not some agenda’d filmmaker/journalist, is to feel like we’re hearing it fresh. Had Fulkerson trimmed the fat, given his two most credible subjects the full 96, and left the glossy docu-tricks to the Moores and Spurlocks, he might have had a standout film or, rather, a standout plea for sanity masquerading as a film. Forks Over Knives is, however, cluttered and unfocused, unable to handle the slickness that it doesn’t need in the first place. Watch it for the kernels of professional advice within or just use common sense and stop eating at McDonald’s.

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