“As Goes Janesville”: screening for free at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on Wednesday
“As Goes Janesville”: screening for free at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on Wednesday

You’re no doubt familiar by now with Vice-Presidential candidate Paul Ryan, but do you know from which town he hails? The answer is Janesville, Wisconsin, the small downstate city that’s also the focus of As Goes Janesville, a new documentary that is screening — for free —  at 7:00 pm this Wednesday, October 10th at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood.

For decades, the city’s fortunes were inextricably linked with those of General Motors, Janesville’s largest employer. GM operated an assembly plant from the early 1920s until late 2008, when the financial crisis dealt a fatal blow to consumer spending. After the final sport utility vehicle rolled off the line two days before Christmas, union jobs that had allowed generations of residents to buy homes, send their children to college, and (of course) purchase their own Chevys literally disappeared overnight.

In a community of 63,000, the loss of 11,000 well-paid jobs was a stunning blow. Hundreds of other Janesville residents were forced to relocate to Indiana or Texas, home foreclosures skyrocketed, and, in the space of only a few months, Paul Ryan’s hometown went from boom to bust. Atlas, of course, merely shrugged.

Janesville’s plight became a political football for both parties: President Obama visited the town and pronounced that the promise of Janesville was the promise of America (whatever that means); newly inaugurated Republican Governor Scott Walker proclaimed that good times were ahead because “Wisconsin is open for business” (and we quickly found out exactly what that meant).

Inspired by Walker’s radical ‘Shock Doctrine‘ ideology, local business leaders and bankers developed a plan to attract non-union companies to the region. Using generous incentive packages and tax breaks as bait, the country club set attracted the attention of a medical technology firm that didn’t even have a product to sell. Should the company eventually develop its product and build a facility, it will employ no more than 100 workers, none of them necessarily from Janesville. On a happier note, the company directors will be $9,000,000 the richer.

Gaining access deep within the belly of the beast, director Brad Lichtenstein’s film features footage of business leaders and politicians brazenly plotting to undo state regulations they consider onerous and ‘anti-competitive’. He even gets Governor Walker to open up on camera and admit that his plan is to divide and conquer the residents of Wisconsin.

Regular folk are represented by once and future State Senator Tim Cullen, an unprepossessing Kennedy Democrat who learns the hard way that today’s GOP is uninterested in compromise, and by former GM and Alcoa employees now forced to commute hundreds of miles to an auto assembly plant in Indiana or take local jobs that pay less than half their old salaries. (GM workers earned around $28 an hour, and most of the new jobs in town are in the $8-$10 range.)

Lichtenstein’s film packs a remarkable amount of information into its brief sub-60 minute running time — none of it terribly surprising, much of it unsettling. Janesville is the sort of place the phrase ‘Middle America’ was coined to describe, but it’s just one among hundreds of towns feeling the harsh lash of marketplace magic. Paul Ryan may not appear in As Goes Janesville, but the Ayn Rand acolyte’s shadow nonetheless looms large.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.  

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...