The Planet Money movie reviews desk is normally a pretty sleepy place. There aren’t a lot of blockbusters about economics. But we sure woke up when we recently watched American Factory, now streaming on Netflix. It’s directed by Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar. It’s backers include Participant Media and the Obamas’ Higher Ground Productions, which is a partner of Netflix.
American Factory doesn’t sound like a barn burner. Disney probably doesn’t have an Avengers: American Factory in the works. And, yes, American Factory really is a documentary about a plant in Dayton, Ohio, that makes windshields.
But it’s a challenging, strange, eye-opening film. Here at Planet Money, we’ve all been watching it. As our colleague Alex Goldmark said after he finished it, “My wife and I sat there and looked at each other, and we just didn’t know how to feel.”
It would be easy to know how to feel about it if it were just the thing it looks like it set out to be, the usual sympathetic story about the American blue-collar worker, with the expected problems and questions: Factories are shutting down, the unions are in retreat, the bosses stay powerful and rich. These are important stories, but they quickly fall into a kind of pattern of hard work and hopelessness. We mostly know how to feel.
It looks like it’s going to be the same at the glass plant in Dayton. But then a Chinese company, Fuyao Glass America, shows up to reopen it. Chinese companies buy American companies all the time. At this point, that shouldn’t be that interesting, either.
But Fuyao let the filmmakers film everything.