By Christopher Renton
There’s nothing flashy about the documentary As Goes Janesville. Fitting, since there’s nothing flashy about its subject. The Wisconsin city of 63,000 watched almost 20% of its workforce lose their jobs when the GM plant there was shuttered in 2008. The exodus of that one corporation grounded economic activity to a halt and left everyone, including bank managers and politicians, scrambling to keep the town alive. The choice to restructure a large corporation is nothing new in contemporary America and, sadly, the individuals affected are normally reduced to an abstract unemployment figure. This film serves as a correction to the anonymity inherent in the term “depressed economy.” America is struggling to regain its foothold in the globalized economy it dominated for decades. As the title suggests, Janesville and its citizens are a microcosm of that national effort to prevent a continued slide toward financial ruin.
The director, Brad Lichtenstein, casts a wide net in his choice of subjects: there’s the local politician who takes time to deliver food to out-of-work families and then later goes toe-to-toe with the union-busting governor; two mothers who must choose between their family and a job that’s now moved 4 hours away; another middle-aged mother returning to school as her unemployment runs out; and finally, the financial power-brokers that will do anything to attract new business, including offering an untested company a $9 million taxpayer-funded incentive package. All of these individuals play important roles in the grand socio-economic scheme and the filmmakers patiently follow each of them for 3 years. From the immediate aftereffects of the plant shutdown to the political fireworks of the 2012 gubernatorial recall, we watch their lives change–some for the better and some for the worse.
In As Goes Janesville we are without the help of an authoritative voice-over to weave these disparate stories into a conclusive thesis, we are bereft of animated graphs to give us the “big picture.” Instead, we watch normal people engage in real conversation about their hopes, their fears and their stark realities. Though one can safely assume Mr. Lichtenstein leans farther left than he does right, he does an admirable job of avoiding opportunities to pander. In fact, his devotion to the story of State Senator Tim Cullen, an avowed centrist, might be telling of the director’s own political views. It is Cullen’s story that could be a documentary all its own–a Janesville resident that wants nothing more than to improve the lives of his constituents, but faces partisan gridlock and financial sophistry at every turn. Trapped between the forces of politics and money, he is as flummoxed and helpless as the underemployed citizens he represents.
The film is probably twenty minutes too long, but what it lacks in concision it more than makes up for in relevance. It’s a historical document of a contentious time in American history when political and financial battles left ordinary citizens as their only casualties. We find hope in our capacity for adaptation, as one mother finds a new career and two others resign themselves to weekly commutes, but Tim Cullen’s capitulation to the well-funded Governor says more for the state we’re in than we wish it did.