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‘The Grab’ Review: A Gripping and Timely Look at Land Grabs and Investigative Journalism



Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s SeaWorld exposé Blackfish Wasn’t an easy documentary to watch, but it was an easy documentary to get hooked by, which I don’t think is intended as a fish pun. The anger and sadness from Blackfish kick in after only a few minutes and are sustained for over 80 minutes.

After turning her directing attentions to scripted features (plus FX’s recent Children of the Underground), Cowperthwaite returns to the documentary world with The Graba new feature that is in all ways a tougher film to embrace. The Grab thrusts viewers into a complicated world without prelude, examines a problem that isn’t necessarily clear even to the onscreen heroes and, unlike Blackfishspends much of its running time without an obvious point of sympathy or hissable villain.

The Grab

The Bottom Line

Not as attention-grabbing as ‘Blackfish,’ but just as urgent.

There are, however, rewards to the toughness of The Grab. Its topic is unquestionably a crucial issue for our age and its approach to that topic both has journalistic rigor and represents a thoroughly admirable depiction of journalistic rigor at a moment at which we put too little value on such things.

The Grab tells the story of a seven-year research project by Nate Halverson of The Center for Investigative Reporting, beginning with the 2014 sale of Smithfield Foods to a Chinese company for $4.7 billion, the largest deal of its kind. The acquisition put a quarter of America’s pigs under Chinese control. But what role did the Chinese government have in the sale and why does it matter? Why did a Saudi company purchase 15 square miles of arid terrain in the Arizona desert? Why did the founder of Blackwater shift his focus to facilitating land acquisitions in Africa? Why was Russia recruiting American cowboys to take agricultural jobs in a part of the country that was, until recently, too cold to sustain farmland?

Over the duration of the investigation, Halverson adds multiple reporters to his team — he’s an executive producer on the documentary; they are not — and while several of them repeat the journalistic truism “Follow the money,” that’s only the start of an elaborate process of making connections. There are connections between commercial interests and government interests, between agrarian concerns and mercenary military organizations, all coming together in a snapshot of a race against the clock to control food and water resources.

It won’t surprise anyone who has seen Road Warrior or Waterworld or Soylent Green that these are the resources with the potential to be the next oil or the next precious mineral or the next rubber as overpopulation and climate change make previously fantastical visions of dystopia feel ever more plausible. The Grab is here to make it clear just how close we are to various catastrophes of scarcity and how we got there, connecting the dots between those Chinese-purchased pigs or a drained aquifer in rural Arizona — stories you might not have even heard about — and the Arab Spring or Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Some of the connections are obvious, some astonishing in their layered complexity and some would sound straight out of a conspiracy rant if Halverson and his team didn’t have the receipts and didn’t take viewers through those receipts in such varied ways.

Part of why The Grab is often so gripping is that it encompasses so many of the different ways that reporting is done in the 21st century. Viewers are likely to be most engaged by a sequence where the journalists and filmmakers are detained at an airport in Zambia, prompting some guerrilla filmmaking that will draw comparisons to similar undercover scenes from Blackfish. There are interviews with high-profile potential sources around the world, each pushing the team closer to a bigger-picture understanding. Then there’s “The Trove,” an acquired cache of data that Halverson is almost hilariously cagey about. I never had a lack of respect for the amount of effort that goes into breaking a massive story of this time, but I love seeing the details presented in this sort of methodical way. It puts The Grab in the same general sphere as something like All the President’s Men or Spotlightas simultaneous examinations of big, landscape-shifting stories and the necessary journey to cast light into the darkness.

Cowperthwaite isn’t always great at breaking down some very basic things. Anybody who doesn’t know what The Center for Investigative Reporting is will be perplexed, and even if you know that much, there are a lot of operational things that left me scratching my head, from how this seven-year project was funded to the exact nature of Cowperthwaite’s involvement. She’s a more present figure in the reporting than anything the documentary explains, and I think there are interesting points to be made about the different responsibilities of a documentary filmmaker and an investigative journalist and the different ways the same story might be presented in different mediums. Where do you start a story? When do you stop reporting a story? What is the level of wonkiness or the tone that a story like this needs to have in order to reach the widest possible audience? Who has the responsibility to include notes of optimism or calls to action and whose job begins and ends at presenting information in a cogent way and letting audiences draw their own conclusions?

The Grab doesn’t tap into the same wellspring of emotions as Blackfish did, but I respected its filmmaking and storytelling a lot more. There’s approximately zero chance of it finding a comparable audience or having a comparable impact, though we’d all be better off if it did.

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