Video by: Victor Jacobo
Two days before Christmas in 2008, a General Motors plant closed down in Janesville, Wis., causing a negative ripple effect throughout the town and driving up unemployment rates. A movie at the Milwaukee Film Festival that first aired Saturday, titled “As Goes Janesville” attempts to accurately portray the angst that resulted from the plant closing from a non-political perspective, instead focusing on the impact of the closing on Janesville residents.
While political figures, including President Obama and vice presidential candidate and Janesville native Paul Ryan have talked about the predicament facing the town in “As Goes Janesville,” the documentary itself is not actually about politicians, or even about the politics of what occurred. It is about how a community built on a century-old GM plant tries to recover from the aftermath of its termination. The film strives to foster empathetic views toward all characters involved, regardless of political viewpoints.
“It was really emotional for me,” said moviegoer and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee student Rachel Moore, whose uncle worked in the plant in Janesville before it closed. “I just never really understood why it was this big deal, but I feel like I do now. It makes me understand my uncle better. It makes me understand that town a whole lot better. It kind of made me understand Wisconsin better.”
The film’s release at the festival comes on the heels of a political ad from the American Future Fund that has been airing in both Wisconsin and Minnesota since mid-September.The ad claims Obama told residents of Janesville the plant would be around for a hundred years, just a few months before it shut down.
Paul Ryan issued a similar criticism during the Republican National Convention, implying that Obama was to blame for the closing.
“My home state voted for President Obama. When he talked about change, many people liked the sound of it, especially in Janesville, where we were about to lose a major factory. A lot of guys I went to high school with worked at that GM plant,” Ryan said at the convention. “Right there at that plant, candidate Obama said ‘I believe that if our government is there to support you … this plant will be here for another hundred years.’ That’s what he said in 2008. Well, as it turned out, that plant didn’t last another year. It is locked up and empty to this day. And that’s how it is in so many towns today, where the recovery that was promised is nowhere in sight.”
The movie, which was made before Ryan started talking about it on the campaign trail, did not focus on Ryan or Obama, though Obama did speak to Janesville residents four years ago before the 2008 presidential election shortly before the plant closed, trying to foster trust in the government.
“I know that General Motors received some bad news yesterday, and I know how hard your governor has fought to keep jobs in this plant. But I also know how much progress you’ve made — how many hybrids and fuel-efficient vehicles you’re churning out,” Obama said then. “And I believe that if our government is there to support you, and give you the assistance you need to re-tool and make this transition, that this plant will be here for another hundred years.”
While Ryan’s Republican National Convention speech implies that Obama had misled Janesville residents into believing that the plant would survive, the closure of the plant was planned before Obama even became president, according to CNN Fact Check, and there was little that could be done to salvage it.
According to Milwaukee resident and “As Goes Janesville” viewer Thomas Spalding, it was refreshing to see that the movie didn’t take a political standpoint.
“The best scene of the whole thing was when (Democrat) Senator (Tim) Cullen quieted protestors at an event where Governor Walker was speaking,” Spalding said. “It was just so powerful, and they were so surprised to see this happen that one of them even started yelling at Cullen. I like that it kind of puts being a decent human being above pushing your political beliefs on others. It made it more human.”
“As Goes Janesville” will be at the Milwaukee Film Festival tonight at 7:15 p.m. and on Thursday at 8:15 p.m.