In The News
“As Goes Janesville” informs as it rises above partisan politics
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Labor Press
Posted October 3, 2012
It sounded so old-fashioned and boring. That’s why establishment media didn’t bother to accept the invitation last April 21 to the labor heritage conference. It only learned afterward how it missed a news pearl inside that neglected oyster. Those there started the buzz -- the snippet of Brad Lichtenstein’s in-progress documentary “As Goes Janesville” – and within a week the slow media exploded with a “gotcha video” that dominated front pages, newscasts and the Internet for months.
It showed Gov. Scott Walker, before even introducing Act 10 eviscerating bargaining rights for public workers, revealing his “divide and conquer” strategy to his biggest political donor, billionaire Diane Hendricks, as merely the opening legislative salvo to destroy all unions, public and private, with “right to work” (for less and at the will of the corporate masters). She was delighted while the media and the public were dismayed at hearing his casual assurance.
In the immediate wake of the fury, Walker denied that was what he meant. Even some private sector unions who rely on public works largesse said they still “took his word” that he would not introduce “right to work.” But that chat with Hendricks was vividly clear and the damage to Walker’s candor was unrecoverable. It would take more than $30 million in out of state advertising money just to survive a recall effort a few months later.
Inadvertently, the fury of the publicity did temporary damage to film-maker Lichtenstein. He stuck firmly by his pledge to all sides to keep footage under wraps for a year. But such amazing footage! It revealed the real motors operating right-wing mentality, so conservative bloggers inevitably condemned Lichtenstein as some sort of left-wing stooge fabricating rather than reporting. And even folks in the middle questioned his motives.
Now that the full documentary is available as part of the Milwaukee Film Festival and in New York and other screenings around the country, now that a strong one-hour version of the 88 minute film starts showing on public TV “Independent Lens” Oct. 8, now that it is winning festival awards around the country before its Oct. 6 showing and party in Milwaukee, a huge public apology is due Lichtenstein.
His film is firmly and excellently rooted in the mainstream of reliable, revealing documentary film-making. It actually surpasses those roots.
It is humanistic and personal. It will make your eyes well up over its honesty. You’ll wish to leap through the screen to strangle the unthinking business execs whose schemes for recovery ignore the real human pain– or leap through the screen to hug the factory workers striving tirelessly to explore their options and retrain if necessary despite political extremism and corporate blindness heaping uninvited disaster upon them.
Yet amazingly they were not blaming anyone, though those who see “As Goes Janesville” surely will.
Somehow the film reveals and rises above the partisan fury. It is a time capsule of what happened in Wisconsin and Janesville in a bitter two years – hence perfectly timed to this political season in terms of looking under the rhetoric. But my suspicion is that five years from now, when Obama-Romney debates are long forgotten, the film will remain to expose what really occurred and what it all meant no matter who is in office.
“As Goes Janesville” pivots us between the extreme reactions to the economic downturn. In executive suites there is never any pause to blame the bloated, self-indulgent self-deceiving GM executives (so like the business types offering Janesville “solutions”). Both sets ignored facts, spoke with pride but no humanity about the workers and took advantage of Bush policies to close the GM plant in 2008 and then chart a future without GM. (It would take President Obama to force all sides at GM to grow up and give, but that was 18 months away and too late for the new GM to revive Janesville.)
Fear and panic dominated just that wealthy side while among working people there may have been disgust and even brief despair but better, basic and more intelligent analysis of how steady persistence on known family values was now necessary.
So on the one side are politicians and business leaders talking up America entrepreneurship in the abstract and how great that families can live and grow together side by side in Janesville – yet treating as nigh invisible and worth little more than a shoulder shrug the 11,000 losing jobs who were supposed to rely on neighbors, suggesting that all those working stiffs should just tighten their belts, abandon their lifestyles and adjust.
Meanwhile the business committees were deludedly consumed by elaborate PowerPoint lures, “let’s make a deal” giveaways and “buy a factory for a song” tactics. As the film reveals, while the workers struggled to continue to work and maintain families, the business community became married to billionaire figureheads talking economic motivational gobbledygook, fancy brochures and well-groomed spielmasters who seem borrowed from MGM central casting in the 1940s.
A frightening moment comes when the Janesville city council is bamboozled into an unprecedented $9 million in tax incentives to lure a medical tracer isotope company with an unproven product, debated business plan, guaranteeing no local workers a job, simply because the business blitzkrieg prevailed over experienced public fiscal analysts.
Needless to say, Shine Medical Services is still searching for millions more if it ever gets off the ground in 2015– while another company, NorthStar Medical Technologies, will open a nuclear isotope plant nearby in Beloit, where billionaire Hendricks insisted it set up to take advantage of her property holdings.
It’s one thing to take an intelligent gamble on the future. It’s another to be suckered. And there were shell-game oversaturations all over Rock County as profit doomsday-sayers drew in well-meaning but feeble-minded chamber of commerce thinkers.
Banker Mary Willmer is featured and may not like the viewers’ conclusions since she was so instrumental in the narrow approach to recovery, so willing to pose on brochures with Hendricks, founder of ABC Supply, and so quick to tell the media, sadly, how those $27 an hour GM jobs will never come back.
Devoted to Walker she never gave much thought to what the wealthy should also give up. If major assembly lines were indeed gone, the solution might require more than imposing radically less than decent income on those middle class families whose kids regularly face hers on the sports field.
Somehow in these corporate discussions caught on film it seemed that union wages and benefits were always getting the blame. Instead, business leaders smilingly speculate that it all could turn out great for Janesville to have far fewer workers willing to submit to far less pay.
For all that Rock County leadership talk about attracting entrepreneurs and companies, the reboot was never about selling a skilled, flexible and needy full workforce but vacant land and exploiting economic circumstances, pushing more doctors and hospitals for a community with less clients and less health insurance.
The film -- just by chronicling in shorthand rapidity – nails an amazing vapidity. It forces the viewer to work, to put two and two together, seeing logically what the business leaders failed to grasp much less attempt to solve. Lichtenstein had unusual access to boardrooms, rallies where business leaders fawned over Walker’s “open for business” pledge and stacked slick sales flyers promoting sizzle.
In contrast, and without Ayn Rand romanticism, the lens creates heroes – realistic ones because they are simply common working folk worried about their families. He somehow gained intimate access to the union bread-winners, often female, all within 20 years of retirement, determined to keep families together in Janesville. Sometimes that meant moving themselves hours away to share cramped apartments with other GM workers in Indiana – just so their children and injured relatives could stay secure in their Janesville.
The human price is considerable. In one case a tragedy fills the absent working mother with guilt as she rushes home -- and costs her a GM job in Fort Wayne until her union steps in. Yet the unions are not unscathed – a GM UAW deal that allows $14 an hour workers also shuts down hope among weary displaced veterans longing for early retirement.
In another candid story, a mother goes back to tech college after 13 years hauling tires (this after years of military service). And while she aces the classes to become a lab technician she does so without health coverage or unemployment insurance – and then comes news of cancer.
I am being deliberately evasive about some names and details because I don’t want to ruin the experience of the film.
Lichtenstein couldn’t know all that would unfold, but by getting his cameras inside and letting the subjects flow he creates a constant texture, context and contrast. The political implications emerge from the fabric of honest but anticipatory and creative documentary work.
Let’s not overlook how open were the families who invited Lichtenstein into their struggles. It may also have been friendship with the Paul Ryan clan that explains how the director got such access to the normally secretive chats of the rich.
But Ryan doesn’t make the final cut. That’s in keeping with the director’s desire not to be overtly political and keep the story about Janesville people through his selective liquid editing.
Yet those extensive Ryan outtakes have been made available online
and are quite revealing of his pre-Romney “gee whiz” manner and “I love Janesville in all its facets” pitch with those incomprehensible macroeconomic flourishes.
That caffeine hyped young congressman comes across today as full-fledged hypocrite. The outtakes actually expose the con act that went over so big once upon a time in Janesville but can’t stand up to national scrutiny. (That’s particularly true with the reality in Janesville today of how little he did to keep the big GM plant vital despite his clout because he was so busy selling those now nationally detested ideas about Medicare and Social Security.)
It is also ironic how the Ryan keeps talking up all the businesses founded in Janesville in the last century, including those of his family, while the Walker minions on film describe the death throes of the middle class as inevitably natural because Janesville’s economy is so outdated for the 21st century.
Liechtenstein in online comments is forced to expose Ryan’s flat lie at the GOP national convention seeking to blame Obama for 2008 GM plant closing during the Bush era. The interviews touch on the Ryan who once wore a “straight-shooter” mantle from Russ Feingold and actually reveled in the power to be a one man Obamacare from his House office. But again and again, if you match the outtakes with what is in the film, his outmoded concepts simply didn’t match what his hometown needed.
If there is political nobility within the film, it is relegated to an unexpected source, a politician out of public service since 1988 first seen delivering food for the poor. Yet at 66 Tim Cullen was pulled back into the fray in 2010, the lone Democrat to win a state senate seat and one of the 14 who fled to Illinois to force Wisconsin to rethink Walker’s attacks on workers.
Cullen has a reputation of working congenially with all sides – Walker even singled him out – yet is clearly feisty in his Democratic beliefs, even temporarily seeking to run against Walker in the recall. Yet as the film shows it is Cullen being jeered at by left-wingers for appealing for civility during a Walker tourism speaking event. It is the same Cullen biting his lip and holding his temper as the rich blather and crow about how Walker’s election would save Janesville.
A viewer realizes it must have been difficult for the director to maintain the same lip-biting decorum in such a divisive universe, but he succeeded – the gift of a true documentarian.
In an interview, Lichtenstein conceded it was constant struggle for his team to maintain composure as they stumbled across entrenched views, “but I knew if it came out as some sort of polemic it would fail. I wanted to sincerely explore what happens to a community when it loses its middle class and becomes so fearful and confused.”
That’s why he hopes the response to the film will become a foundation of a business and labor discussion and movement to rescue communities in ways more intelligent and deep-seated than what Janesville is still going through.
He is encouraging all labor groups and federations to hold viewings and join the community effort. His 371 Productions will soon launch bizVizz, a mobile app and website, providing users with information about whether a company has paid their taxes, how much they’ve paid as a percentage of their income, and details about their employment records.
This is a film that not only must be seen, but should emotionally trouble viewers in the fissures it uncovers in our so-called exceptionalism. In one way it may be the necessary 2012 corrective to the 2010 election fever that sent the nation over the cliff through that violent Tea Party Koch-funded reaction to economic downturns that, along with lousy management, closed the GM plant.
Yet is also could be a corrective beyond partisan ideology if you examine the simple human lessons.
Maybe those Janesville business leaders married to Walker divide and conquer myths, flunked basic principles by ignoring the silent screams of agony from their own neighbors. “As Goes Janesville” without dramatic flourishes suggests there clearly is a more intelligent and empathetic way – and America had better listen.