American Factory
Credit: Netflix

It’s one thing to skim headlines about trade wars and the struggles of the working class on your smartphone; it’s entirely another to see them come to such stark, specific life as they do in American Factory, a new Netflix documentary that sharply delineates the possibilities — and the limits — of a modern global economy.

Veteran filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert (A Lion in the House) turn their cameras to Dayton, Ohio, former home of a GM plant whose 2008 closing (two days before Christmas, no less) decimated the local community.

Seven years later, workers who once made $29 an hour see possible salvation in the arrival of a Chinese windshield company called Fuyao Glass: The salaries are less than half of GM’s and the production quotas much higher, but they’re grateful — at least at first — just to be on the line again. In understated observational style, Bognar and Reichert’s cameras toggle between the Chinese workers who come to Ohio to establish the plant, and the Americans who struggle to conform to their vastly different management style.

There are scenes of startling culture clash (Americans, a Chinese supervisor notes helpfully, need extra training because “they’re pretty slow, and they have fat fingers”) and small, affecting moments of friendship between the overseas workers who have been moved thousands of miles from home for no extra pay, and the locals who hopefully but warily welcome them in — including one Daytonian who even invites some dozen wide-eyed visitors over for a Thanksgiving potluck (What says U.S.A.! louder than piles of turkey and honey-baked ham, with target practice and Harley rides?).

What Bognar and Reichert don’t provide is pure heroes and villians, or the promise of a happily ever after. It’s not easy to watch the festering disconnect between employees determined to unionize and the upper ranks who would happily replace them all with more obedient and efficient Chinese workers — or the quieter but no less upsetting incidents of anger and miscommunication between the workers themselves, most of whom have been given no real context for understanding each other.

The movie, which bowed to uniformly rave reviews at Sundance earlier this year, is also — it will probably be noted ad nauseum — the first film collaboration from Barack and Michelle Obama’s new production company Higher Ground. But the heart and soul of American Factory, like all American factories, is never really politics of course; it’s people. B+

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