“The Good, the Bad, the Hungry” includes everything one would expect of a documentary about the “Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest” in Coney Island.
That means revolting scenes of frankfurters and soggy buns being eaten at remarkable speed, as well as some of the training methods the stars use to prepare for the July 4 event.
But the film, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and is set to debut on ESPN on July 2, is centered on the rivalry between the competition’s two biggest names, Joey Chestnut and Takeru Kobayashi.
More specifically, the emotional focal point is Kobayashi’s path from champion of 2001-06 through a contract dispute with Major League Eating and feeling ostracized by American fans who once adored him and switched allegiance to Chestnut, who is from California.
Kobayashi speaks passionately in Japanese about all of the above in director Nicole Lucas Haimes’ film. He told Newsday in English at the premiere he thought the film had “bad points and good points.”
When asked whether it was fun being on a red carpet at a New York film premiere, he said, “Kind of.”
At that point, Kobayashi and Chestnut had not spoken for 10 years, but after the premiere they appeared on stage together, and Chestnut put his arm around Kobayashi.
If there is a villain in the film, it is not Chestnut but rather longtime emcee George Shea, who is open about his cynical pragmatism in promoting the event.
“She opened my eyes,” Chestnut, who has won 11 of the past 12 contests, said of Haimes. “Honestly, I’m so competitive that sometimes I don’t understand what other people are going through . . . I realized doing interviews that, ‘Oh my God, I was pretty insensitive to [Kobayashi’s] problems.’
“I had the same problems when I got older. I wanted more freedom, and eventually they gave me the same things he was asking for. So it’s sad that we had to lose years of competing against each other . . . . When he decided to protest his contract, I saw that as a way of not competing, a reason not to compete.
“But later I thought it took some serious guts to step away from the biggest contest of the year, and something you love. He loves it. He loves it as much as I do . . . If we had communicated more we could have helped him to solve his contract issue and continued competing against each other.”
Haimes said she was attracted to the topic beyond the contest itself.
“I thought there were amazing human stories that were fantastic beyond the act of shoving hot dogs into your face,” she said. “The hard work and the effort on something that from the outside seems as frivolous as eating contests was extraordinary and really fascinating to me.”
Chestnut said he hoped the film would answer concerns of people who consider eating contests frivolous at best and wasteful or dangerous at worst.
“There have always been a lot of critics of competitive eating,” Chestnut said. “You can be a critic of anything. It’s easy to be a critic. You can say negative things about golf, the amount of water wasted on golf courses. Or NASCAR. There are wastes in everything.
“The biggest thing they say is the waste of food. We’re really not eating that much food, first off. Second, most of us are really thin, and we don’t want to eat like this on a daily basis. I think people will learn that we do love to eat and we love the competition and people are overly critical of low-hanging fruit.
“I think they’re going to change their own minds, and this [film] will change some minds.”