King Corn

2007, Movie, NR, 88 mins


Activist prankster Morgan Spurlock casts a long shadow over Aaron Woolf's documentary, in which a pair of colorless eco-activists investigate the infiltration of subsidized corn and corn byproducts into every corner farm policies.

Eco-activists Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis became friends at Yale, only later learning that their great-grandfathers both had roots in tiny Greene, Iowa, a town in the middle of America's corn belt. Simultaneously intrigued by the coincidence and by alarming statistics about the prevalence of corn, often in hidden form, in the American diet, Ellis and Cheney decided to follow a single acre of corn from planting to supermarket shelves. Joined by Woolf, who is Ellis' cousin, Cheney and Ellis moved to Greene and persuaded a local farmer to allow them to farm a single acre of his land. Before a single seed goes into the ground, the city boys have learned about government subsidies, fertilizer, pesticides and soil type. As their little acre grows, they contact distant relatives and get acquainted with the history of American agriculture and the transformation of family farms into sprawling agribusinesses. The turning point, they determine, was 1973, when Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz declared a new priority for America's government-subsidized farm program: "What we want out of agriculture is plenty of food," he declared, and boosting yield per acre became public priority No. 1. The result was a glut of corn, only a fraction of which ever wound up on American dinner tables. Enter the experts, who explain to Cheney and Ellis exactly where all that corn goes and the damage it does along the way as it drives feedlot beef production, sweetens an ocean of soft drinks and is fermented into ethanol.

To their credit, Woolf, Cheney and Ellis shine a light on the "how" of "how did this happen," but the morbidly fascinating facts (the details of why corn is unsuitable cattle feed are especially disturbing) are interspersed with an excess of cutesy animation, folksy chitchat with the neighbors, and homey but not especially interesting trips down the Ellis and Cheney family lanes. For all its timeliness, KING CORN pales next to the 2001 corn documentary HYBRID, a masterful mix of eccentric family biography and agricultural history. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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