Joshua Reviews Brad Lichtenstein’s As Goes Janesville [Theatrical Review]

With the 2012 election cycle in full swing, there are a handful of topics that have become the biggest hot button issues that this country is currently discussing. One of them, and arguably the biggest, is the continuing issue that this nation is having with both creating job, as well as the continual loss of jobs previously implanted. Factory jobs, particularly those within the automotive world, are some of the hardest hit, and while the bailout of various auto companies has helped, people are still feeling the pain. Toss in the recent accosting of labor unions around the country, and the American Middle Class is becoming one of the most discussed groups of people within this country.

Always the harbingers of the hyper-personal and hyper-important documentary, the group known as Kartemquin Films and director Brad Lichtenstein have revealed their new documentary feature. Entitled As Goes Janesville, this film looks at the class warfare that has been waged throughout the country, giving us glimpses into the lives of people ranging from factory workers to politicians on both sides of the aisle. Hitting the zeitgeist like a sledgehammer to the coccyx, Janesville is just the type of documentary that men and women of any political leaning should see before heading to the polls, particularly with entire parties preaching that, if they were to gain power, would work to wipe out entire unions around this great and greatly unionized nation.

Steering clear of any Michael Moore-esque verbal politicizing, director Lichtenstein gives this film a vital sense of urgency without being proselytizing. Never condemning any one person, be it the men and women out of work or the politicians looking to bring in a new commodity that may or may not even spawn anything monetary, the film simply allows these stories to breath. The closest thing to a villain that this film has is Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, whose rise to his current status is seen as this nation’s economic and unionized breaking point.

Janesville is Middle America. A small town hit hard by the recession, the three women that we follow from this town, Gayle Listenbee, Cynthia Deegan and Angie Hodges, are the film’s greatest attribute. Their stories are not only emotionally resonant (ranging from a woman dealing with the possible loss of her healthcare or a mother dealing with spending lengthy time away from her family in a different city), but they speak to both situations and also deep fears that we all feel in this unstable job-landscape.   They play as the film’s emotional core, and could have stood to be the film’s sole focus. However, we do follow a handful of elites within this debate, and their stories stand as the film’s intellectual discussion, looking at why we have ultimately hit this position and where we will be going.

In its entirety, the film is enthralling. A few beats fail to hit on their emotional or intellectual intent (banker Mary Wilmer’s attempt to get a burgeoning science project going is a tad oddly placed), but where these moments fade away into the ether, there are a cavalcade of beats that will never be forgotten. The film’s greatest feat is in its esoteric setting, it ultimately plays as a universal American narrative. These characters are you and I, going through the same issues, dealing with the same fears, and are thrust into the spotlight via a documentary that is as beautifully crafted and structured as any this year. A look into this country and the attack that is being thrust upon its middle class, Janesville is as pertinent a documentary as you’ll find this election cycle.

As Goes Janesville airs on PBS on October 8th.

Joshua Brunsting

Josh is a critic, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, a wrestling nerd, a hip-hop head, a father, a cinephile and a man looking to make his stamp on the world, one word at a time.