With Roger & Me (1989), a nose-thumbing expose of greed and arrogance at General Motors, director Michael Moore demonstrated you could make a documentary about hard-core economic realities and still get people to buy tickets. His method was simple — and, in a way, pure Hollywood: Always let the audience know who the villains are.
Barbara Kopple, director of Harlan County, U.S.A. (1977) and the wrenching new American Dream (which won the 1990 Oscar for Best Documentary), has never quite learned Moore’s lesson. That may be one reason her latest movie isn’t making the sort of box office waves Roger & Me did; it lacks Moore’s easy, us-versus-them populism. Then again, by offering an intimate and clear-eyed account of the 1985-86 meat-packers’ strike in Austin, Minn., Kopple, while clearly on the side of the workers, creates something richer and darker than just another self-satisfied anticorporate tract.
In the fall of 1983, Hormel announced it would cut hourly wages from $10.69 to $8.25, despite reported profits of nearly $30 million. As the union votes to strike, the movie introduces us to the key players. There’s Ray Rogers, a freelance strike organizer and publicist whose easy, smiling manner makes him seem something of an opportunist. And there’s Lewie Anderson, a veteran negotiator from the international parent union who warns the locals to call off the strike because, in his eyes, there’s no way they can win.
Anderson, as it turns out, is right. When the workers refuse to compromise, the company simply offers their jobs to replacement workers (a situation echoed almost exactly in the recent Caterpillar strike). American Dream offers a catastrophic snapshot of a nation in which the very ethos of unionism, of workers standing by other workers, is dying off. But why? Perhaps because, in an era of economic desperation, the once-sacred act of refusing to cross a picket line is a gesture of idealism too many Americans can’t afford to make.