July 5, 2021
Rated ‘PG-13’ for some thematic elements.
Stars Christopher Walken, Christina Ricci, Zach Braff, Luke Kirby, Adam Beach, Martin Donovan, Roberta Maxwell.
Themes of corporatism and environmental activism seep into the otherwise affable underdog legal drama Percy vs. Goliath, which tracks a Canadian farmer’s battle over seed rights with a multinational chemical conglomerate.
The story is drawn primarily from the case of Monsanto v. Schmeiser, a late-1990s/early 2000s legal dispute in which Percy Schmeiser (Christopher Walken) was sued by the Monsanto Company for inadvertently planting some of its genetically modified canola seeds on his family farm in Saskatchewan.
Monsanto might be best known as the corporation that sponsored a number of Tomorrowland attractions at Disneyland in the 1950s and 1960s (including the House of the Future) before developing Agent Orange for the U.S. military to unleash on Vietnam. In the 1980s the company turned to genetically engineering crops and experimenting with other GMOs.
Percy eschews GM seeds in favor of saving his own supply from the most robust crops from the most recent harvest. Monsanto, sending investigators onto Schmeiser’s land to test his crops, alleges he has been planting their patented seeds without a license. Percy contends the Monsanto seed must have blown onto his land from neighboring farms that use it, and that he repurposed it without realizing what it was.
The Schmeisers’ lawyer (Zach Braff) encourages a quick settlement to avoid a protracted and expensive legal fight. Percy, being too proud to submit, carries on thanks to the support of an environmental activist (Christina Ricci) whose organization wants to hamper the implementation of GMOs in agriculture.
From their perspective, Monsanto is attempting to squeeze out farmers who won’t do business with them by making it impossible to avoid their products. The Schmeiser case in particular involves a strain of canola seed engineered to resist a herbicide called Roundup, also produced by Monsanto. The innovation of the GMO is that a farmer could spray his fields with Roundup to kill weeds while leaving the crops unaffected.
That creates a catch-22 for farmers such as Schmeiser who don’t buy from Monsanto, as the only way to know they’re using Monsanto seeds is to spray the field with Roundup — so that any crops that survive would be owned by Monsanto, and rest would be dead, which doesn’t do the local farmer much good.
Percy continues to get hammered in court on the basic legal premise that the seed is patented and he should be aware of what he’s planting. As a result, Percy’s reputation is damaged as the community begins to see him as a thief. But with the increased attention of his case bringing him support from other farmers who have had similar experiences with Monsanto, Schmeiser vows to continue the fight all the way to Canada’s supreme court, even if it bankrupts him and costs him the family farm.
The film is grounded by its solid performances and does a good job of presenting the stakes of the case and their significance, letting the political subtext speak for itself while it focuses on the personal story of Percy’s family and their allies. A lesser movie might have chosen to dive more into the debate and focus on Ricci’s activist character, whose base attempts to manipulate the Schmeisers into becoming the face of her cause are soft pedaled a bit because the film is sympathetic to the desired outcome.
Walken ably carries the film as Percy, who is presented as a crusty and proud everyman who just wants the chance to earn his keep in peace — though the real Percy was much more politically inclined than his humble movie counterpart is made out to be.
Percy’s story was previously the subject of the 2009 documentary David versus Monsanto, a title that used the other half of the “David vs. Goliath” sobriquet.