Percy vs Goliath

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Categorisation: Environmental docudrama

Availability: At cinemas

Plot: Clark Johnson (The Wire) directs this environmental docudrama that tells the story of Percy Schmeiser, a Canadian farmer and accidental activist who took on the agricultural corporate giant, Monsanto. Monsanto monopolises the cropping industry through the development and patenting of seed that is genetically resistant to its own widely used weedkiller, ‘Round-up’. Persuasively, Monsanto convinces farmers that by spraying their crops with the pesticide they will never need to worry about weeds again. The only problem is they have to purchase and sow Monsanto’s Round-up resistant seed, which then traps them in a dependent relationship with the corporation. Even farmers who choose to sow their own seeds become vulnerable to legal action from Monsanto when the Round-up resistant seeds accidentally contaminate their farms. Both legally and practically it’s a messy business, and Monsanto reaps the financial benefits as farmers end up having to pay the monopolistic corporation when their crops are found to have Monsanto gene. Loosely based on a true story, Percy Schmeiser is a seed-saver. Like his forebears, he saves the seeds of his strongest plants, which he then plants, creating stronger crops over generations. An independent crop farmer, he wants nothing to do with Monsanto. But when his crop is tested, some seeds are found to have the Round-up resistant gene and Monsanto threatens Percy with court action or a $10,000 penalty. In similar situations, farmers like Percy see no option other than settling out of court and pay the penalty. But Percy is incensed, and refuses. Legal battles commence, and go all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. In the mix, is a parallel story relating to anti-GMO environmental activism that Percy finds himself an unexpected spokesperson for. 

Cast: Christopher Walken is outstanding in the lead, bringing considerable heft to the film. It’s difficult to find any weaknesses in his characterisation. The perfect foil to Walken’s brusque portrayal of Percy, Roberta Maxwell is terrific as his wife Louise, who also bears the consequences of Percy’s fight for fairness. Zach Braff sympathetically plays Percy’s small-town, and sometimes baffled lawyer, Jackson Weaver. Christina Ricci does a good job in playing the rather unlikable Rebecca Salcau, the environmental activist who pressurises and sometimes manipulates Percy in support of the greater good.  

Filming and Setting: This film is beautifully made. The cinematography captures the stunningly flat Saskatchewan landscape across the seasons – the rich colours of growth, and the bleakly beautiful snow-covered plains of winter. Somewhat discordantly, the upbeat country music playing throughout the film is at odds with the seriousness of Percy’s deteriorating legal and financial situation. Ending the film with Woody Guthrie’s ‘This land is your land’ didn’t feel quite right either. A rousing Canadian song would have gone down better. 

Personal Comments: The film does an effective job of showing what an emotionally draining experience it is to engage in an individual fight against a corporation like Monsanto. The underdog versus the all-powerful multinational also has compelling appeal in the same way other films have over the years (for example, Erin Brockovich, and Dark Waters). The main weakness of the film is the way in which it strays into anti-GMO territory, and in particular Percy’s conference trip to India. While it was visually interesting, the David and Goliath story would have been strong enough to carry the action without this meandering fictional diversion.

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