"McLibel" chronicles the notorious U.K. case in which McDonald's sued two activists for libel for distributing a pamphlet that made some rather basic arguments against fast-food consumption. Recently updated and expanded to feature length from a 53-minute 1998 version, docu is playing scattered U.S. rep house dates, starting June 10 in San Francisco.

This review was corrected on June 16, 2005.

An alarming if ultimately inspiring David-and-Goliath parable for today, “McLibel” chronicles the notorious U.K. case in which McDonald’s sued two activists for libel for distributing a pamphlet that made some rather basic arguments against fast-food consumption. Trial wound up being the longest in English history, costing McD’s an estimated $20 million in legal fees — plus inestimable PR damage — while turning the self-defending duo into public heroes. Recently updated and expanded to feature length from a 53-minute 1998 version, docu is playing scattered U.S. rep house dates, starting June 10 in San Francisco. Longer life should ensue as an educational item.

In 1986, members of the London Greenpeace group produced a leaflet which detailed “Everything They Don’t Want You to Know” about the Golden Arches. Major points were: Ads misleadingly suggest the chain’s foods are healthy and nutritious; high-fat diets have been scientifically linked to cancer, heart disease and obesity; McDonald’s ad campaigns specifically target children; McD’s meat suppliers are unnecessarily cruel to animals; cattle ranching and packaging damage the environment; restaurant employment is low-wage, high-stress, and non-unionized.

Many of these points are fairly obvious yet due to the heavily complainant-biased nature of English libel law (which disallows defendants from getting pro bono legal aid), the defendants had to “prove” each on their own. Meanwhile, McDonald’s used its colossal resources to bring in teams of high-priced lawyers and “experts.”

For activists Helen Steel and Dave Morris, a bartender/gardener and postman single-parent respectively, sticking it out was a matter of principle. What was really at stake, they said, was the right of individual citizens to speak up against powerful corporations. As the fight dragged on for years, Steel and Morris’ whole lives were consumed by the effort, at considerable personal cost.

A former Ronald McDonald actor and U.S. cattle rancher are among those who volunteered to testify for the defense, in addition to heavyweight reps from the World Cancer Research Fund, the Intl. Union of Food Workers, and Friends of the Earth U.K. “Fast Food Nation” author Eric Schlosser is particularly articulate in separate interviews that sum up the case’s overall import and the fast-food industry’s impact on individuals and the environment.

Their very ordinariness makes Steel and Morris perfect underdogs, though at the same time their lack of charisma (certainly in comparison to “Super Size Me’s” Morgan Spurlock, duly glimpsed here) underlines pic’s own merely-workmanlike craft. (Between completing “McLibel’s” first and second versions, director Armstrong showed her learning curve by making a more accomplished docu, “Drowned Out.”)There’s not much art or drama to the assemblage of materials, which isn’t helped much by segs in which actors portray trial participants, rotely directed by none other than Ken Loach. Yet those materials alone compel, despite the occasional dull patch.

McLibel

U.K.

Production

A Cinema Libre release of a Spanner Films production. Produced by Franny Armstrong. Executive producer, Peter Armstrong. Directed by Franny Armstrong.

Crew

Camera (color, video), Franny Armstrong, Peter Armstrong, Neve Cunningham, Mick Duffield; editors, David G. Hill, Gregers Sall; dramatic segments director, Ken Loach; sound, Neil Hipkiss. Reviewed at Lumiere Theatre, San Francisco, June 10, 2005. Running time: 84 MIN.

With

Helen Steel, Dave Morris, Eric Schlosser, Morgan Spurlock, Colin Campbell, Sue Dibb, Dan Gallin, Stephen Gardner, Geoff Giuliano, Charlie Kervons, Howard Lyman, Charles O'Leary, Paul Preston, Charles Secrett, Keir Starmer, Fran Tiller.

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