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Movie Documents 'Janesville' After GM Closes Plant


The town of Janesville, Wisconsin has come into the national spotlight this week. It's the hometown of Republican vice presidential candidate Congressman Paul Ryan. For much of its modern history, Janesville was an auto town, home to a General Motors assembly plant. But after the 2008 economic crash, GM and thousands of well-paying jobs are gone. Filmmaker Brad Lichtenstein profiled the town in a documentary that will air on "Independent Lens" on PBS the night before the election. Brad Lichtenstein joined us from Milwaukee to discuss the town that produced Paul Ryan. Good morning.


MONTAGNE: Your film focuses on the lives of several people who are coming to terms with the changing economic circumstance after the GM plant closed. And from both perspectives, that of business there in the town, and also from the perspective of workers, what did you find?

LICHTENSTEIN: Well, it was interesting. When I first started filming, there was a kind of golden moment of unity in Janesville. The town had put together a taskforce to try to get a new product to come into their closed GM plant. And that brought together management and labor, Republicans and Democrats, including Paul Ryan and his staff. It brought together everybody, and they worked really hard to try to put together a package that would incentivize GM to reopen the plant. Now, when that failed, what happened is that people retreated to their ideological camps. The economic development effort was led by business, and it was their goal to try to align themselves with forces that would make what they thought their town more hospitable to business, which meant less regulation, lower wages. And people whispered a lot about being happy that the UAW and unions were gone because now they could pay less. The other side really was sort of defined by the schism that took place once Governor Walker introduced a bill to end collective bargaining. And I followed a man who ended up running for Senate in the state. And he was actually trying to negotiate an agreement between Governor Walker and the Democrats, and his effort was thwarted because it was a real rejection of pragmatism, and people chose divide and conquer as opposed to unity.

MONTAGNE: And, again, Paul Ryan, born and raised in Janesville, you interviewed him a few times, although he's not actually in the film. What did you learn about him and his relationship with his town?

LICHTENSTEIN: Well, it's interesting because Paul Ryan is very popular. He routinely wins elections even when the rest of the ticket goes Democrat. And he's a very kind of you see what you get person, straight shooter, tells you exactly what he thinks, doesn't seem to be afraid to make mistakes the way many politicians do when you spend time interviewing with them. That said, it was interesting, just as a kind of study in rhetoric, it seems that Paul is able to somehow in one situation talk from his deep ideological convictions that are very much formed by Ayn Rand, Fukuyama, other neoconservative thinkers. And at the same time he's able to insert himself as a kind of player in the community who puts community first.

MONTAGNE: And yet Paul Ryan, a Republican, has remained to this day popular in a traditionally Democratic-leaning district, you know, at a time when there was a recall - not successful - but a recall of Governor Scott Walker.

LICHTENSTEIN: Right. Well, I actually think that when I was filming, over the course of the time that I was filming, that there was a sea change in Janesville, and perhaps in that entire district, but I'm most familiar with Janesville and its sister city, Beloit. And I think there was a sea change moving in the direction from strong labor tendencies in terms of voting and leadership, towards a more pro-entrepreneurship, pro-business kind of zeitgeist in the communities. And I think that that kind of signals that sort of sea change towards that vision that Paul Ryan often articulates, you know, this kind of nation of entrepreneurs and this excitement about capital and risk-taking.

MONTAGNE: Brad Lichtenstein, thank you very much for joining us.

LICHTENSTEIN: Oh, thank you. It's a pleasure.

MONTAGNE: Brad Lichtenstein's new documentary is "As Goes Janesville." It's about the Wisconsin hometown of Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan and will air on PBS stations in November the night before the presidential election. Tomorrow, NPR's Brian Naylor reports on Paul Ryan's voting record over the past several years and how it has alternately pleased and frustrated those who live in Janesville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.