Top Fifty Films of the 90s — Number Forty-Three


#43 — American Dream (Barbara Kopple, 1990)
Most modern documentaries have an intractable point of view. A filmmaker begins with a thesis and proceeds to gather evidence that bolsters the presented opinion, with divergent views pulled in only to be decisively knocked aside, preferably with a poisonous tang of mockery. Maybe this has long been the case–while fiction films from all era get regular airings on Turner Classic Movies and other outlets with longer cinematic memories, documentaries of days gone by tend to vanish into the ether–but it certainly feels like a relatively recent phenomenon, just another manifestation of our devolving public discourse of constant, apoplectic opposition. Making documentaries in such a manner isn’t an automatic dead end; there are far too many example of great non-fiction filmmaking in recent years to make that assertion. However, weighing the value of Barbara Kopple’s riveting, measured American Dream is a reminder that eschewing evenhandedness robs a film of its journalistic authority.

After winning an Oscar for 1976’s Harlan County, U.S.A., a documentary about a coal miners’ strike, Kopple found another example of labor unrest that could be fashioned into a compelling film story. The union workers of a Hormel meatpacking plant in Austin, Minnesota have their wages slashed by management, leading to an extended conflict that ruptures families and unsettles the entire community. It’s not hard to guess where Kopple’s sympathies lie. The simple fact that she sought to chronicle another example of workers pushing back against their employers, taking great care to show the lives of the people on the picket lines, is an indication of how she feels on the subject. That viewpoint may bring her to these stories, but it doesn’t guide her approach as a director. Instead she works with co-directors Cathy Caplan, Thomas Haneke and Lawrence Silk to thoroughly depict every facet of the clash. The executives of Hormel come across as callously indifferent to the shared plight of the workers who drive their business, but the union officials are hardly deified, often coming across as equally out of touch. Kopple doesn’t take sides. Instead, she honestly portrays the clumsiness in all quarters with such rigor that the only reasonable impression is to marvel that any progress is ever made when powerful figures debate intricate matters than have real world repercussions which exist entirely outside their blinkered vision.

It’s a dismaying story, but Kopple and her collaborators don’t trade in cheap sentiment or try to ratchet up the drama to unseemly, manipulative levels. They proceed instead with a restrained confidence, a sense that accuracy will carry the film more effectively than pushy emotions or political drum-beating. They aren’t there to pull out bullhorns and lead the charge against the establishment. They are there to turn on their cameras and do the best they can to capture what’s in front of them: the pain, the hopelessness, the fiery conviction, the deluded indifference, the dull lifelong ache of workers and managers that have fully lost sight of the value of working together, lost to the comparative ease of an adversarial existence. The filmmakers know that their responsibility, first and foremost, is to tell a story that is true.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

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