While watching “American Factory,” I flashed back to the 1986 Ron Howard comedy, “Gung Ho,” about a shuttered US car factory bought by a Japanese firm, which puts the workers back on the line, but not without a lot of culture clash. It starred Michael Keaton, Gedde Watanabe, George Wendt, John Turturro, Mimi Rogers, Rick Overton, Sab Shimono, and (of course), Clint Howard.
While that film was played mostly for laughs, “American Factory” is serious business. Here’s how my former colleague Aaron Barnhart describes it:
“American Factory” tells the story of a shuttered Midwestern auto plant that comes roaring back to life when a Chinese billionaire buys it. Suddenly, thousands of former auto workers have jobs again — though not exactly at their old union wages. Joining them are a couple hundred Chinese employees from the home office, who are so deeply schooled in the company’s culture they can sing the corporate anthem by heart.
“We’re melding two cultures together here,” says a recruiter in the film’s opening minutes. “Chinese culture and American culture.”
American Factory’s timing could not have been better — it arrives just as the current president is waging a trade war with China, and lends much-needed depth to an issue that is almost criminally shortchanged in the news media. Maybe 45 can “accidentally” watch it like he does Bill Maher’s show.
The documentary has just the right mix of baked-in drama, drawn from the divisiveness between the Chinese supervisors and their American employees, many of whom want to unionize the plant to guarantee safer working conditions and higher pay (one employee who made $29/hour under GM earns less than $13/hour under Fuyao). While some friendships develop between people from each culture, there’s enough deep-seated hostility to go around, too. One of the most telling scenes is when several Chinese managers decry what they perceive as Americans’ slowness, laziness, and unwillingness to work 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week, like those in their home country, where many employees take no more than a day or two off each month as they put the company’s needs ahead of those of their families. In other words, Americans are not “Gung Ho” enough.
“American Factory” directors Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar use the extraordinary access they were given to reveal the struggles of blue-collar workers in the US desperately trying to cling to the middle class, as economic circumstances and automation threaten the livelihoods they’ve counted on. It is one of the best documentaries of 2019.