The premise of ‘As Goes Janesville’, recently released on DVD and VOD, is an age-old story: small town prospers around big corporation, big corporation packs bags and leaves thousands without a job. Now what? This is where the action starts. The story of contrasts emerging from this well-rounded and complex piece of work, far from being a generic remake of David and Goliath, is both timeless and timely, generic yet unique.
It’s the result of a number of years work by director Brad Lichtenstein and team, who started filming in 2008 in Janesville, Wisconsin after the controversial closure of the General Motors plant that put thousands of locals out of work and became the cause of much political wrangling thereafter.
The film documents the aftermath of the bombshell, at first drawing the reader in through the personal stories of three laid-off female plant workers. Angie Hodges who had hoped to retire from the Janesville GM plant like her ancestors before her but must now work in another state, Gayle Listenbee who may have to work four minimum-wage jobs to stay in Janesville and Cindy Deegan, laid off from GM-connected company Alcoa with no transfer options and is forced into retraining. All three are sole breadwinners, all three have very tough choices to make.
The stories of these three women run through the documentary like a heartbeat as the other business and political players emerge. The accents, cars and climate may be different but the basic worries are the same around the world, reminding the viewer time and time again that what is discussed in boardrooms and meetings as percentages and statistics has a direct impact on human lives.
Meanwhile local business figures spring into action to help Janesville rise again. Local bank president Mary Wilmer sets up “Rock County 5.0”, a group focused on selling Janesville as “open for business”. The group, desperately chasing jobs, courts an up-and-coming medical technology business and hopes to secure a vast sum of public money to seal the deal. Then, the story bursts the banks of Janesville. Wisconsin state senator Tim Cullen, a Democrat and Wisconsin Governer Scott Walker, a Republican, get involved. Discussions, meetings and dinners are grounds for political and business wrangling, brought to a head by Governer Walker’s proposal of a budget repair bill that would cut government workers’ take-home pay and affect collective bargaining rights. Teachers get laid off, mass protests ensue, followed by political walk-outs and talk of breaking the unions and “dividing to conquer”.
It’s complicated at times for viewers not familiar with the dogmas and the black and white determination of American politics but the plot lines and main characters will be familiar to anyone partial to Greek tragedies. Or anyone who has lived in the EU in the last five years and perhaps lost their job and worried about their children’s education, their home or their health while watching their government make at time incomprehensible decisions when it comes to public funds and long-term strategies.
That’s the beauty of this film. Janesville becomes a relatable scale-model of countless places around the world, with vested interests, money and power taking the floor. Each side knows what’s best for Janesville, each side wants to win. Meanwhile, at a micro-level, each family is fighting to win its own personal battle against the odds.
It’s a portrait of Janesville at a particular moment in time, a snapshot of it among the ages. It has fallen and risen before and it may or may not rise again. As goes Janesville, so goes the rest of the world?