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Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Countdown To Oscar: American Dream

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Best Documentary, 1990

Director: Barbara Kopple

I’m not an American so maybe there’s some sort of cultural nuance that I’m missing, but I’ve never understood why Ronald Reagan was - and, given that he ranked 2nd in a poll of greatest Presidents in 2007, remains - so popular, considering the adverse effect his economic policies had on the middle and lower classes. American Dream takes place during Reagan’s second term as President and provides an overwhelmingly critical look at the impact that Reaganomics had on working people.

The film is set in Austin, Minnesota and follows the strike of workers at the local Hormel plant. To fully appreciate the impact of the strike, it must be understood that the Austin is one of those smaller communities whose economic base is centralized with one company that has employed generation upon generation. In 1985 Hormel posted a profit of nearly $30 million but cut wages from $10.69 to $8.25 and cut benefits by 30 percent, prompting P-9, the local union, to begin talking strike action (“If we have to take a cut of $2.45 an hour when the company just made $30 million, I hate to think of what’s going to happen when they post a loss,” one employee states at one of the many union meetings the film depicts). The Hormel executives aren’t willing to budge, insisting that the economic climate makes it necessary for these cuts to be implemented, which in turn prompts P-9 to hire Ray Rogers, a strike consultant who begins waging a media campaign against the company in an effort to rally support to the union’s side.

In hindsight the hiring of Rogers seems to create more problems than it solves as his aggressive style winds up putting P-9 in conflict with the international union, led by an increasingly frustrated Lewie Anderson. Time after time Anderson is exasperated by what he sees as inept negotiating by those with P-9, who seem to have an inflated sense of what they’ll be able to accomplish. This leads to a rift between the local and the international, the result of which is that when P-9 does go on strike, it does so without the support of the international union. What’s particularly interesting to me about this film is that it doesn’t reduce the issue down to corporation vs. union, but takes a close look at inter-union politics and the way that infighting made it all the more easy for Hormel to get away with exactly what it wanted all along. What occurs at the end of this film is brutal and infuriating, a startling demonstration of that 80s era mantra, “Greed is good.”

Director Barbara Kopple is a very unintrusive storyteller. She doesn’t insert herself into the narrative as Michael Moore does, but instead stands back from the story and allows the people within to speak for themselves. Her methods personalize the story in a number of ways, but the most impactful as far as I’m concerned is the film’s look at the way the strike affects the relationship between two brothers. Both work at the Hormel plant but while one is a staunch supporter of P-9 and the strike to the bitter end, the other is less certain, wanting to do what’s right by supporting the union, but also wanting to do what’s right by providing for his family. When Hormel begins giving away the striking workers’ jobs, some of those on strike return to work, including one of the brothers. What is ultimately a minor nuisance to the Hormel company is dividing the town in half and tearing families – the fabric of any community – apart. This isn’t just a story about economics; it’s a story about fundamental and irrevocable changes in America’s heartland.

In the final analysis, American Dream isn’t necessarily a pro-union film despite its overwhelming criticism of the way the corporation treats its workers. The heroes of the film are not the union leaders, many of whom are characterized as believing their own hype at their peril, but the average people caught in the middle of the fight. Between the corporate leaders and the union “stars” are hundreds of workers who just want to make ends meet and the “American dream” that seems more detached from reality than ever.

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