'The Game Changers': Film Review | Sundance 2018

THE GAME CHANGERS Still 1 - Sundance 2018 - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
A thorough and well-assembled piece of dietary evangelism.

'The Cove' director Louie Psihoyos returns with an athlete-stuffed pro-vegan doc.

Not the first and surely not the last film hoping to overwhelm carnivores with evidence that abandoning meats wouldn't be the kind of change they've been led to believe, Louie Psihoyos' The Game Changers puts most of its energy into profiling athletes whose amazing strength and endurance derive entirely from plant-based diets. Almost identical in shape and content to Santino Panico's recent From the Ground Up, Psihoyos' version is much more polished and slightly less likely to leave viewers feeling they've been beaten over the head with a tuber.

As in the other film, this one uses an injured athlete at its core: James Wilks, a retired MMA fighter who now trains elite military forces in hand-to-hand combat, was sidelined by a knee injury, then started researching ways to speed his recovery. As the film tells it, his path toward veggies began when he stumbled across news of researchers who studied the bones of ancient gladiators and determined that these manly men were mostly vegetarians.

"I needed to find out" the truth, Wilks says in voiceover, uttering words as cliched in the doc realm as "in a world..." are for movie trailers. Recalling the Panico film, Wilks and Psihoyos hit us with an array of individuals chosen to bust myths about connections between meat and muscle, veggies and protein, et cetera. From Aussie Olympian sprinter Morgan Mitchell to the terrifyingly strong weight-lifter Patrik Baboumian, we meet plenty of athletes who not only prove you can excel while eating only plants, many report that they grew much stronger after making the dietary switch.

Plenty of doctors show up to explain how this might be, debunking popular misconceptions about "incomplete proteins" and other nutrients, then running little example experiments to show how even a day of eliminating meat changes a subject's blood. We're well into the film — already having discussed the food industry's "eat like a man" marketing campaigns that glorify beef — when the doctors break out perhaps their most memorable experiment: One rigs three athletes up with gear to measure their nocturnal erections, suggesting that skipping the steak might mean good news in bed.

Anthropologists and archaeologists poke holes in the Paleo diet, showing how new techniques indicate "early humans ate mostly plants"; Arnold Schwarzenegger drops in for an eat-plants testimonial; and the film briefly touches on the environmental ills of meat farming that, unlike much of the above, are likely common knowledge to viewers whose heads aren't buried in a manure lagoon somewhere.

What's underplayed here (though not completely ignored) is how ordinary humans, who think of food not for fuel but for pleasure, might make do with a diet that eliminates so many of the ingredients that make us salivate. If this is indeed a doc category on the rise, perhaps the next wave needs to team health and eco-experts with documentarians fluent in food porn. If recent docs, for instance, can make an open-minded viewer excited to try eating grubs and maggots, surely making lentils and soy appealing wouldn't be so hard.

Production company: OPS Films
Director: Louie Psihoyos
Screenwriters: Mark Monroe, Joseph Pace
Producers: Joseph Pace, James Wilks
Executive producers: James Cameron, Suzy Amis Cameron, Maria Wilhelm, Kyle Vogt, Tracy Vogt
Directors of photography: John Hunter Nolan, John Behrens
Editors: Dan Swietlik, Stephanie Mechura
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Doc Premieres)
Sales: Cinetic Media

88 minutes