The small town of Janesville, Wisconsin has been in the news lately. Vice-Presidential nominee Paul Ryan was born in Janesville and serves as a U.S. House Representative from this district. This alone obviously puts Janesville under the spotlight, but political circumstances stemming from a GM factory being closed in 2008 has also created nationwide news. Since this plant closed down, over the past five years Janesville has been an epicenter of political headbutting between middle class factory workers and a growing conservative landscape. This political war came to a head during the ongoing union battles which made southern Wisconsin front-page news all across the country. As Goes Janesville covers this war from all sides as both a human interest profile documentary and political film.
I’m from a small, midwestern town a lot like Janesville. Growing up, the economy was driven by a factory that employed most of the area. When I was a Sophomore in highschool, it was announced that the steel mill was closing and the town hasn’t been quite the same since. The population dropped with families leaving to find work elsewhere, businesses closed, and there was a feel in the air that everything was dying. I felt a close connection to the three families profiled in As Goes Janesville who were directly impacted by the GM factory closing. Many of the workers laid off were given opportunities to transfer to other plants around the country — as it was the only way to keep their pension and keep a job (one subject calls it a “forced move”), two of the women in the film decided it was worth it, packed up and left for Fort Worth. It’s a tough decision they made, well explored by the documentary, as they have deep ties in their community, both having teenage children who they have to leave behind. With the housing recession also in full force, it’s nearly impossible for them to think of selling their houses to cut all strings and completely leave.
Smartly, As Goes Janesville isn’t all doom-and-gloom, as it introduces a few people who are only dedicated to rebuild Janesville. It would have been extremely easy for the filmmakers to only focus on the specifics of the GM plant closing (which there is very little on) and what that did to people in the community — though I expect with the hot political climate that was soon to come, they knew this was a story they had to tell. A major subject of the film is Tim Cullen, a former Wisconsin State Senator from Janesville who, after more than 20 years out of office, decides to run again and is elected. During his first run as State Senator he built the reputation of a Democrat willing to talk with Republicans if it meant making his community better, and his role in the story becomes interesting — far leftists begin to see him as too bi-partisan for their cause while he’s figuring out that the conservatives he’s dealing with in 2011 aren’t of the same breed he’s accustomed. On the other hand, the film spends a lot of time with a group called Rock County 5.0, who is looking to bring industry back to the area at any cost. Seeing groups from both sides of the political aisle is unusual for a film of this subject, and it is refreshingly centered, at least at first.
As the film goes on, it becomes clear that the film isn’t quite as non-partisan as it first seems. When the war over unions begins to boil, the film definitely drives an activist approach. I’m not sure how much I would blame the film, as it does clearly intend to capture the perspectives of both sides of the debate, but it can’t help to villainize the conservative initiatives that are taking control of the area. The Rock County 5.0 group, the major conservative profile, start out as idealistic pioneers looking to save Janesville, but end up as the clowns of the film. Smartly, the film spends most of its time with Mary Willmer, a local bank president who is the head of the Rock County 5.0 group. Though the group is portrayed in a negative light, she comes out mostly positive — though the filmmakers might think she’s a bit misguided on how to bring back productivity to the area, it treats her fairly as a mother and community member trying to do the right thing. As with any film, you’re going to bring your own background in as a viewer, and as a pretty liberal gent, the film is mostly catered to me. As a film reviewer, though, I was as conscious as possible about how the film was telling this story, and it is ultimately pretty complicated. It’s not exactly a call to action type of film and doesn’t seem to have a clear agenda, but it certainly doesn’t come off as even-handed.
One thing I think we can all agree on, however, is that As Goes Janesville is able to captures some incredible footage around this political battleground. The controversial governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, plays a significant role in the film — though he isn’t a major figure or someone the filmmakers directly talk with, he pops up throughout the film, mostly through his involvement with Rock County 5.0. In one particular scene, protesters flood an event Walker is attending, unrelated to the political debate, and the tension created in these types of moments is remarkable. Taking out the specific political context of these moments, the film captures undeniably great drama. As Goes Janesville feels very much like one of those lighting-in-a-bottle type of documentaries that start with a particular vision and then stumble upon an incredible moment in time. Those are often the most unforgettable.