For years, people have assumed that documentary meant fact and for many generations of filmmakers, the term documentary was often confused with extended news analysis or historical information film. Only in recent years have film makers adapted the documentary to its current definition, a film that takes evidence of a subject and presents it to the viewer. In that way, “Super Size Me” fits the modern definition of a documentary.
It also fits some of the classical definitions in that writer, director and star Morgan Spurlock attempted to create the documentary under the old ideals of fair and balanced news reporting. He attempted to get both sides of the story and show the viewer both sides of the equation. He even attempted to follow somewhat scientific methods in his experiment, setting for the rules and research before he began the experiment. The rules were simple. Spurlock investigated the amount of exercise the average American gets and committed to getting approximately that amount of exercise.
Then, he challenged himself to eat every meal for 30 days at McDonald’s restaurants. He had to try everything on the menu at least once and if the cashier offered to supersize the meal, he had to agree. Before he began the experiment, he had a thorough health exam including blood chemistry tests and an evaluation by a fitness expert and a nutritionist. All the experts warned him against conducting the experiment, but he wanted to prove what everyone suspected: fast food is killing Americans.
The film covers Spurlock’s various medical visits, facts about the food served at McDonald’s and his diary about how he was feeling during the month. The viewer also gets to see his nutritionist and doctors recommend mid-way through that he abandon the experiment because of the effect it is having on his liver functions and cholesterol levels. In the end, Spurlock discusses the weight he gained while conducting the experiment and the time it took to clean up his blood chemistry and lose the weight after the experiment was done.
He also tells people how he went about losing the weight. Clearly, Spurlock’s documentary is meant to have an effect on social behavior. Much like smoking, drinking to excess and dozens of other bad habits, Americans knew before the documentary that fast food is unhealthy. However, it was unhealthy in only the vaguest sense. People might say consuming fast food caused them to gain weight or that they felt bad after consuming it, but no one had ever actually monitored the effects of a diet based completely on fast food.
Too many people turn to fast food when they are pressed for time or simply do not feel like cooking, a point that Spurlock emphasizes in the documentary but interviewing people and discussing the reasons that they eat at McDonald’s. He also analyzes the marketing strategy of the chain and points out the idea that the company intends to acclimatize people to the restaurant while they are young, making them more likely to turn to McDonald’s as they get older.
That, he claimed, is why the chain features a clown and play areas, a blatant attempt to recruit the youth of America. Spurlock also interspersed his documentary with statistics and facts about the American obesity epidemic and the effect that it is having on children. Though the primary focus of the documentary was on American eating habits, he was careful not to neglect other causes of obesity, especially in children including the lack of physical fitness programs in schools and the types of meals provided by school cafeterias.
In essence, even in his indictment of the fast food industry, Spurlock was pointing out that this is not the only facet of American social behavior that needs to be changed. This has two effects. First, it lends credence to his claim of impartiality in his experiment and second, it promotes his underlying goal to change American behavior to a more healthy lifestyle including better eating habits and getting more exercise.