Steve Bognar and Julia Reichert’s “American Factory,” the first Netflix film produced by Barack and Michelle Obama, resembles a Frank Capra movie that cuts off right before the third act, just when everything looks grim and the future is uncertain.
It’s a captivatingly complete snapshot of an evolving/devolving industry, where idealistic globalism clashes with cultural incompatibility, and the success of a company relies increasingly on the failure of its workers to make a comfortable living. That the film has been presented by the former president and first lady of the United States could have amplified its political subtext, but that’s hardly necessary. Or, in this case, possible.
“American Factory” takes place in Dayton, Ohio, where GM closed down its factory in 2008, leaving thousands unemployed. Fast forward a few years, and the Chinese corporation Fuyao, which produces industrial glass for use in automobiles, has moved into the space with a seemingly noble goal: They’re reaching across the aisle, hiring American workers, saving the town and building a fine product in the process.
Of course, everyone’s making less money than they used to, and the language barrier between American workers and their new Chinese managers is a bit of an obstacle, but the promise of a better tomorrow is tantalizing. So it’s disconcerting when Bognar and Reichert’s cameras capture footage of Fuyao’s Chairman Cao demanding that doors be moved arbitrarily, at great cost, and that fire alarms be lowered, illegally, for purely aesthetic purposes. That’s probably not a good omen.
The Chinese workers are warned that Americans are fundamentally lazy and complacent. “They dislike abstraction and theory in their daily lives,” the managers are warned, shortly before they start complaining about how difficult it is to train “slow” American workers with their “fat fingers.” OSHA is starting to be a real pain in their neck, complaining about pesky details like workplace safety, as though maybe — just maybe — Fuyao shouldn’t cavalierly force clean-up crews to endure 200-degree temperatures all the time.
As frustrating and sometimes disturbing as the situation at Fuyao becomes, Bognar and Reichert never turn “American Factory” into a completely Kafka-esque horror show. The film seems genuinely hopeful about globalization on an individual, human level. American workers marvel at the wonderful productivity of their new corporation, and Chinese workers begin to embrace the newfound freedoms of their American lifestyle. “American Factory” finds something to admire and to criticize about both cultures.
But when U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) shows up to speak at the opening ceremony, the real problems begin to arise. Brown reminds his audience that America relies on unions to protect the working class, which throws a wet blanket all over Fuyao’s explicitly stated plan to avoid unions at any cost. One American Fuyao employee can’t believe what he’s hearing, and finally forbids the senator from coming to the plant ever again, raving, “I’m going to have to kill the senator. I’m going to have to take the big scissors and cut [off] Senator Brown’s head.”
“American Factory” eventually settles into an upsettingly familiar narrative about a giant company, in pursuit of financial success and ultimate efficiency, spying on its employees, firing union sympathizers and scheduling mandatory meetings to brainwash its workforce into thinking the only way to protect their rights is to trust their company to do the right thing. Even though they obviously aren’t, and they just removed the lunch room to make space for more production. The fantasy of merging two very different cultures begins to collapse under the realities of capitalism, which looks suspiciously similar wherever it spreads, and tends to favor only one group of people.
“American Factory” spends so much time examining the mindset of the people in charge of Fuyao that one can imagine a billionaire watching the film and interpreting it very differently. Perhaps it’s not a Capra-esque tale of the working class preyed upon by big business, but instead a heroic tale of progress moving forward despite the frailty of human employees, and despite a culture that values personal achievement over the success of the company. That’s a chilling vision of the future for everyone in the audience who isn’t fabulously wealthy, but it’s incredibly illuminating to consider that, for many of our employers, that future is the stated goal.
Steve Bognar and Julia Reichert have produced in “American Factory” an invaluable snapshot of a moment where history is repeating itself, and trying to write a new, possibly dystopian ending. But it’s also a film full of beautiful human beings, trying desperately to make good for themselves and their families regardless of their nationality and culture. They may disagree about the best way to run a company, but they’re all doing their best to survive, even as the employers they rely on for that very survival literally conspire to replace them all with robots.