We were all Ambassadors of Optimism: As goes Janesville

See end of post for national and Wisconsin screening schedule

In the documentary As Goes Janesville [the full length 88 minute version] we follow two laid-off UAW workers, a laid-off Alcoa worker,  a team of business boosters, and Wisconsin State Senator Tim Cullen just before and during Wisconsin’s 2011-12 uprising. The focus of this film is the quest for jobs in a region of Wisconsin devastated by the closure of a General Motors auto plant. In this film we see only slivers of the intense protest battle people waged against Scott Walker before their energy would be exhausted on recall elections. Yet the conflict between Wisconsin’s right wing and The People thrums through this entire film. This is my review written after a Madison screening hosted by the UW Havens Center and WUD.

Director Brad Lichtenstein presents admirable and loving moms who work hard and keep it together. Gayle Listenbee scours the job market and in her middle age decides there is no option better than moving to Fort Wayne, Indiana to another GM plant. A second United Auto Worker union member makes the same choice, leaving behind her mother and son. Cynthia Deegan is the third worker: a woman who was laid off from an Alcoa plant. Cynthia is the one white woman of the three. She is the one who opts to go back to school, taking a heavy load of 17 credits and seeking an entirely new career as a lab technician.

These strong women manage challenges with grace and humor but they, and their families, also suffer overwhelming stress. Cynthia cries in relief after taking a make or break test for a job. Gayle’s 11 year old daughter is depressed at the loss of daily time with her mother and grieves immediately. When she calls her mom in Fort Wayne and she’s crying, we see Gayle tell her sobbing daughter to pray through the phone and a little girl’s shaky “Our Father” begins.

In the Q and A after the Madison screening of AGJ, Lichtenstein was asked why he chose women workers as his documentary subjects.

He said the story of men’s struggle with identity after layoffs had been told already and he thought it was time to see the female side. The inspiration came to Lichtenstein when he was in a job center and saw Cynthia Deegan generously helping her laid-off friends with a whirlwind of questions on unemployment insurance forms and training programs.

When we’re watching the families in AGJ, we see the little things that, cheesy as this may sound, say “I love you” — Gayle’s husband flipping pancakes and brushing out his daughter’s hair.

When we’re in the board room with the Rock County 5.0 business group, we’re entering into a place disconnected from day to day life. The players are always wearing suits, they are mostly male, and they are all white. They are connected to the new power center of Wisconsin: Scott Walker.

The Rock Netroots blogger keeps a close and critical watch over the activities of the biz promotion groups Rock County 5.0 and Forward Janesville and sums them up as: “mainly politically driven self-interest groups whose core leadership is comprised of hyper-partisan right-wing engineers. We’re in Atlas Shrugged territory here with a smattering of old world Republican and pseudo-conservatives”.

We do hear cringe-inducing and surprisingly candid statements from the Janesville biz leaders in AGJ which tells us these people really have no clue how offensive they sound outside of their own scheming circle. Here’s just one groan-inducing scenario: John Beckord of Forward Janesville is in another brainstorming session with his peers and he’s trying to figure out how to spin the exodus of the labor force. “Perhaps the fact that these people are gone is in the plus column because you can pay less now.” Following his eyes go wide and he smiles broadly.

Former UAW union president Mike Sheridan told us in the post-screening Q and A that he’d spent many hours with the people in Janesville 5.0 and knew them well. He was shocked at Beckford’s comment and told us Beckford wouldn’t think of saying such a thing if he were in the room.

We also see moments so absurd in AGJ that they scream “mockumentary”. Like when the biz troupe watches a dull commercial designed to lure business to Janesville. As the screen fades to black, an enthusiastic man at the conference table says “It needs to be 5 minutes because it’s do damn good!” A minute later he says with not a hint of irony, “We need to make this thing go viral!”

In short order the film cuts to a close-up of a baseball cap embroidered with the team’s phrase, “Ambassadors of Optimism” and the audience around me laughs.

In one of the closing scenes Mary Willmer-Sheedy of M&I bank carefully dons one of those same caps and looks into the camera with genuine happiness and trust. She stood at the side of Diane Hendricks and we see her nod in agreement in this film when Scott Walker uttered his infamous “divide and conquer” comment. Of all the biz boosters we see, Mary displays the most humanity and genuine caring for the Janesville community. I know that she was right at Scott Walker’s side nodding at each of his words.  I know that M&I Bank executives gave so much money to Walker’s 2010 campaign that union members hounded the shareholder meeting of The Bank of Montreal when it was getting ready to purchase M&I.   Still, I can’t help but look back at Mary’s smiling face on the screen and smile with her.

In a fascinating makeover, Tim Cullen is given the role of Man of The People. He’s been one of the least lauded of the Dem14 [reminder: the 14 WI state senators who left for Illinois in Feb 2011 to block Walker’s legislative agenda]. Part of Cullen’s least-favored status comes from his plain appearance and lack of charisma. Another element in his lackluster formula is what Emily Mills called a “built-in handicap thanks to Gov. Walker’s kind words for the senator during the now-infamous prank Koch phone call from February”.

Mills wrote that after Cullen announced his candidacy for the governor’s seat in December 2011. At the time I could not for the life of me understand why Cullen thought he had a shot. Cullen’s hat thunked so hard when he tossed it in the ring, people wondered if it said “lead” on the label. In this film we see Cullen being coached into the decision by John Nichols at a little bistro table in a coffee house. Nichols pumps up the idea, saying “Cullen steps up. That would be the drama move.” It’s a statement as baldly absurd as “Make it go viral”  and it’s a peek into the  backroom of what I think is fair to call “progressive” Wisco politics.

I wrote in my viewing notes, “Question for Director: Do you realize what you’ve done for Cullen?” We get to see Cullen deliver groceries to needy people. We see Cullen tell the Rock County 5.0 team that he isn’t going to help them carry water for a tax break bill for start-up Shine Technologies to the state legislature because the bill isn’t transparent and “It’s the people’s money. People have a right to know.”

We see Cullen’s stoicism turn into straight shooting as Cullen gives a name to that routine way growing businesses play one city against the other to get the biggest relocation check: “legitimized blackmail”. We see the patient Cullen lose his temper, telling Walker’s team from his hotel in Illinois “I don’t give a shit if he’s mad.”

When the audience was settling itself into seats before the screening, I overheard a man say, “This could be painful.”


Allow me to describe in detail a moment in this film which you should experience in front of a large screen in a theater – if it’s at all possible for you.

My heart suffered a pang when the camera followed Tim Cullen and the other Dem Senators as they return to the city square, back from Illinois. They emerge from the underground car garage at Inn on the Park to crisp blue skies and chants of “Thank you!” from thousands. That contrast from dark to lightness and from quiet to cheering — it’s so much like a football team emerging from a locker room to a playing field. In those moments a man gives Cullen a solid high five and they hold their hands together just a half second too long. We did not have a feeling of victory then but instead that our team had come together after a long absence –these people who took a crazy leap against The Radical in Chief were there to promise us and each other we would remove him from power. The People handed their power to The Dems in trust though the fullness of our future was unknown.

Not long after that moment in history, Tim Cullen stood on the steps of our Capitol and asked us “Who’s going to govern us: the people or the money?” And we responded with full throats, “THE PEOPLE! THE PEOPLE! THE PEOPLE!”

Our cynicism was shed. WE were the Ambassadors of Optimism.

I recommend you see this documentary in its 88 minute full version. Please get thyself to a DVD copy or a screening. If you’ve seen the 60 minute Independent Lens version it’s not enough. Remember that much of the story of the last few years in Wisconsin has came to us in 2 minute YouTube videos.  28 minutes focused on Wisconsin is a delicious  eternity by comparison and should not be dispensed with.  As a Janesville business booster might say, it needs to be 88 minutes because it’s so damn good.

Connect with the film As Goes Janesville –

National Screening Schedule

AND Additional Madison and Beloit Screenings

1pm, Oct 20, Sequoya Library.

Map to Sequoya Library
“As Goes Janesville – Community Cinema
Join us for a free screening of Community Cinema’s As Goes Janesville by Brad Lichtenstein. America’s middle class is dwindling, and the debate over how to save it is nowhere fiercer than in the normally tranquil state of Wisconsin. In Janesville, as jobs disappear and families are stretched to their breaking point, citizens and politicians are embroiled in an ideological battle about how to turn things around.”

See photos from the film and a Paul Ryan Outtake HERE.

Wed., 10/24/2012 7PM Double Feature at Madison’s Barrymore Theatre
United States of ALEC + As goes Janesville with proceeds benefiting CMD.
Visit Center for Media and Democracy for more info.

Tuesday, October 23rd, 7:00 pm

Location: Wilson Theatre, Mayer Hall
“As Goes Janesville” documentary screening & Q & A withproducer Brad Lichtenstein

There remains a great deal of ignorance at the national level regarding the differences between public unions and private unions and regarding the fact that it was public sector unions and particularly teachers that were under Walker’s attack. This director’s mission was never to dispel those errors. Instead it offers a narrative that follows a select group of people from Janesville. Where there is discussion of unions, it is either generic or focused on a private union: United Auto Workers.

If you’re looking for a documentary on the WI uprising that focuses on the public sector union story, try the film We Are Wisconsin.

This film is one narration. If you have a story to tell that you don’t see in here, and you’re frustrated, then get it out there. Let me know if you need some help doing that.


2 thoughts on “We were all Ambassadors of Optimism: As goes Janesville

  1. “..how the allocation of 20% of Janesville’s annual budget to underwrite an unproven business venture is the best thing since sliced bread, while Obama’s government loans …”

    I have nothing eloquent to add partially because you’ve already said what needs to be said and partially because I really need some breakfast now. But seriously -excellent question.

  2. I’m certainly not a conspiracy theorist, but the more I see, read and hear, the more I believe that the economic bust of 2008 was cynically orchestrated to a) hopefully ensure that the inevitable election of Barack Obama would be a failure, and b) to fulfill every CEO’s hope to eventually pay workers less. You’ll notice that virtually no one in the top 1-2% have suffered any pain these past four years, right?

    But what I really want to know is how the allocation of 20% of Janesville’s annual budget to underwrite an unproven business venture is the best thing since sliced bread, while Obama’s government loans to the auto industry (that will be paid back, by the way) is dangerous and unprecedented socialist intervention in the free market?

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