Movies

Every American Should See Eating Animals. Also, I Hated It.

The new documentary from Jonathan Safran Foer and Natalie Portman is alternately out of touch, over the top, and very, very powerful.

Still from Eating Animals: A man stands among turkeys in a field.
A scene from Eating Animals.
IFC Films

I cooked and ate bacon as I watched Eating Animals, the new documentary reminding us that factory farming is undeniably founded on mass suffering and the ruinous exploitation of both working farmers and the earth. I knew all of this, of course, but in the past five years—ever since I’d renounced my strict vegetarianism of a decade and a half—eggs and a slice or two of thick-cut bacon had become an inextricable part of my morning routine, as reflexive as hitting the snooze button on my phone. It wasn’t until I saw footage of fish swimming with open sores, milk cows with mastitis oozing blood from their udders, and dead pigs with surgical scars blazed across their skin—they were simply too unwell to live—that I remembered that I wanted to see the doc because I’d started feeling bad about eating meat once more.

Based on novelist Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2009 nonfiction book of the same name, Eating Animals is an annoyingly blinkered piece of agitprop—but an effective one, too. Rather than convince viewers of the virtues of vegetarianism, director Christopher Dillon Quinn focuses on the many sins of industrial livestock rearing, which accounts for 99 percent of our meat supply. The documentary relies on a faulty tenet of pro-veggie propaganda: that if people really saw how the sausage is made, they’d stop eating it. (Such idealism strikes me as naive during the happiest of times, but since 2016, the only thing I believe in is our species’ knack for mental compartmentalization.)

But I was primed to embrace the onslaught of guilt. So as I witnessed chickens with legs so surreally nonfunctional they bent in every direction, cows with udders so large they could only hobble forward, and fatted steers with broken legs literally shoved toward their deaths via forklifts, I was horrified all over again by how these animals are bred to suffer from the minute they’re born to the minute they become food. “[The agricultural corporations] have calculated how close to death we can keep an animal without killing it,” says narrator Natalie Portman. That pain extends to the people who take care of the livestock. Sighs a farmer, “There’s no way you can love an animal that’s been genetically engineered to die in six weeks.”

Eating Animals also persuasively explains the environmental, economic, and epidemiological reasons why factory farming is not only a present horror but a harbinger of even worse calamities to come. Its logic is so sound—and the images of animals in unnecessary agony so heartbreaking—that the film, or something like it, should be rewatched every few years to refresh ourselves of the ongoing barbarity that is factory farming. And yet there’s something irritating about its guileless nostalgia for simpler times, which inflects a segment looking back fondly at Colonel Sanders, and its blithe assumption that meat should be an ethical luxury, like a digestible conflict-free diamond. The occasionally over-the-top narration doesn’t help, as when Portman addresses the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the second person: “You were established by Abraham Lincoln, who called you the people’s department. But now your job is to protect industry. … Your job is to guard the fox, not the henhouse.”

The doc essentially ends with a plea to buy more veggie burgers, with one fake-meat rep promising, “There’s something amazing about plants.” So many aspects of Eating Animals, including that line, made me roll my eyes. But the film did remind me that every meal presents the option of moral sacrifice and that a few minutes of fleeting pleasure isn’t worth torturing an animal for all its life.

And yet the idea of quitting meat cold-turkey again immediately sent me into a mild panic. Meat has given me so much. A primary reason I resumed eating animals again after spending most of my adolescence and young adulthood as a vegetarian was an iron deficiency that left me lightheaded in the middle of every taekwondo class. When I resumed eating meat in my late 20s, I anticipated I would feel stronger, but I didn’t expect I’d feel more grown up, too. I suddenly partook in a larger foodie culture that revolved around various “proteins.” I learned how to order and cook meat for the first time in my life, and I discovered that I had preferences for steaks and burgers (medium rare, obviously). I enjoyed gobbling down whatever someone put in front of me and answering “nope” or “none” whenever anyone asked if I had dietary restrictions. I was no longer a holdout but an integrated member of society. Most importantly, I reconnected with my family and my ethnic culture in an unanticipated way. I got married a couple of years ago, but the happiest and most wonderstruck I’ve seen my mother in the past half-decade is when she saw me eat Korean barbecue with her at a restaurant. We were both thrilled that we were finally eating the same foods again.

Meat has other cultural meanings, too, that vegetarianism can’t replace. Meat offers experiences that meatlessness cannot. (A friend has crossed off her “meat bucket list” zebra, yak, kangaroo, ostrich, rattlesnake, grasshopper, and crocodile. Thankfully, she has yet to sample cannibalism.) Low-carb fad diets associate meat-heavy diets with thinness. And pockets of the paleo diet crowd have decided to equate eating animals with masculinity—a conflation that finds its ultimate expression in the derogatory phrase soy boy. Portman’s voiceover performance is full of conviction, but I wish that Eating Animals gave us different models of vegetarianism than she and Foer, a diminutive actress and a bookish Brooklynite, respectively. I get that Queen Bey is busy, but the doc couldn’t line up Portman’s former co-star Chris Hemsworth? The Williams sisters? The veggie members of the Wu-Tang Clan? Ethics are always easier to stick to when they’re reinforced by cultural norms and tribal totems we can relate to. If Eating Animals was going to bother with celebrity endorsements at all, the filmmaking team should have recruited beyond their own social circles in their attempt to bring more people to their cause.

Two days after I saw Eating Animals, I ended up at a health food store I’d only been to once before. I was led there by a rare craving for strawberries, but I ended up standing in front of the shop’s small meat and dairy section. I bought a packet of humane-certified Niman Ranch bacon that cost five times as much as the Farmer John bacon at the supermarket. My wallet was significantly lighter, but so was my heart.