movie review

The Obamas’ Netflix Doc American Factory Gestures Toward the End of the Working World

It’s a terrific sign that Barack and Michelle Obama selected American Factory to be the first film released on Netflix under their Higher Ground banner. Photo: Aubrey Keith/Netflix

It’s too bad that the documentary American Factory will be largely seen on Netflix rather than in theaters, since it would benefit from a responsive, maybe even raucous audience — both to chortle at the culture-clash comedy and gasp as one, in a shared sense of helplessness. Even when viewed on a laptop, though, it’s a great, expansive, deeply humanist work, angry but empathetic to its core. It gestures toward the end of the working world we know — and to the rise of the machines.

How did the directors, Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, get such intimate access to both sides of the story? On the one hand there are the American workers of Dayton, Ohio’s Fuyao auto-glass factory, which takes over a GM plant that shut down in 2008, throwing 20,000 people out of work (and in many cases out of their homes). On the other are Fujianese Chinese overlords who are ramping up their American investments and hope to build a factory as “happy” (a slippery concept) and as profitable as its Asian counterparts.

Each group will make sacrifices. One American says that when the GM plant closed, she was making over $29 an hour, while Fuyao is paying — wait for it — $12.84. (Goodbye, middle class — and new shoes for her kids.) But in some ways the Chinese (the bosses and several hundred imported workers) have a bigger adjustment to make. They are required to attend classes to understand Americans, who, unlike the Chinese, “say what they are thinking directly. They are very obvious.” The Chinese learn the U.S. is a very casual place: “You can even joke about the president.” But their output is pathetic. American workers, the Chinese managers observe, are “pretty slow. They have fat fingers.”

Actually, they have more fat in general — which isn’t something the filmmakers underline (there is no narration) but is hard to ignore. The Chinese are slender, with excellent posture and ready smiles, while the Americans slump and frown. Also, they complain. When they have to spend ten minutes in a 200-degree room, they have the audacity to show fatigue. (“Our American counterparts are very afraid of the heat.”) They seem oddly averse to being seriously injured on the job. They want to unionize.

I could list all the ways in which American Factory shows the Americans and Chinese to be far apart, but, in fact, it’s all of them. They’re far apart in all ways. The company chairman, Cao Dewang, gazes on his American workers, his aged face rigid, grim. He brings a group to China to show them how a real factory works — and it’s a testament to Bognar and Reichert’s hidden artistry that the trip comes at the exact moment in the drama that we’re ready to see How the Other Half Lives. Or, actually, How the Other Half Works. To work is to live. To live is to work. The Fuyao workers in China could very well have sung those words, but as it happens there’s already a company song. It’s an ode to transparency, to a “transparent world.” I was thinking, Why the hell are factory drones in communist-totalitarian China paying tribute to transparency? when I got it. Transparent … glass … The irony probably never occurred to them.

The Fujian-factory scenes might have been choreographed by the Fritz Lang of Metropolis. The movements of the workers are balletic. They are at one with one another and their machines; and the film’s composer, Chad Cannon, gives them music they deserve — fluid like Glass (Philip, not auto) with a parodic but good-natured edge. The visiting Americans (all men, all large, somewhat cloddish) look dazed, like astronauts observing lissome green Martian women in a ’50s sci-fi cheapie. The singers and dancers of a New Year’s celebration are identified as Fuyao employees, and none of them misses a step or wobbles on a note. It’s a gorgeous vision. And tragic. And gorgeous. The filmmakers’ triumph is to make us see both sides at once. What a pleasure it would be to be an executive at a company where the workers have such smiling precision, such obedience! And: What a tragedy it is to live in a society where you’re bludgeoned with the notion that you have so little in the way of a self. On camera, the Chinese put on brave faces. They say they’re proud to work 12 hours a day when their American counterparts will work only eight, and six or sometimes seven days a week instead of five. Their children might be far away, living with grandparents in the country, but they’ll get to see them a few times a year. It is what it is.

American Factory isn’t all black-and-white. Cao and his ilk aren’t malevolent, exactly. They simply equate productivity with happiness and expect American workers not only to feel the same but to be grateful for the opportunity to experience such happiness. What Cao doesn’t grasp is that Americans no longer have faith in a social contract. Why should they give themselves physically and emotionally to a corporation when U.S. corporations feel absolutely no responsibility for the welfare of their employees? It’s the worst of communism (become a cog, a zombie drone) and the worst of free-market capitalism (you’re expendable in all ways).

I should mention that American Factory is buoyant, enjoyable (to a point), and full of lively individuals on both sides of the chasm. The Americans invite the Chinese to barbecues and show them how to fire shotguns and pistols. (Ordinary Chinese citizens can’t own guns.) But the unionizing movement is the dividing line. These are union-averse communists who fire organizers willy-nilly. It’s kind of suspenseful when the day of the union vote arrives. But kind of not. Fuyao has spent a cool million schooling Americans in the horrors of collective bargaining.

It’s a terrific sign that Barack and Michelle Obama selected American Factory to be the first film released on Netflix under their Higher Ground banner. The movie is certainly pro-union (Reichert and Bognar have a history of documenting grassroots movements), but it’s not propaganda. In some ways, its most vivid aspect is How We Look to the Chinese, which is weak. In their eyes, we give our children too much encouragement, too much self-esteem. “Americans love being flattered to death,” explains the company’s new president, who was born in China but has lived half his life here. “Donkeys like being touched in the direction their hair grows.” The Chinese resent touching donkeys, but they’ll do it as long as they have to, until humans willing to function as machines are superseded by actual machines. The movie is eye-opening — a windshield on the new world.

American Factory’s Window Onto the End of the Working World