The most unfortunate part of American Made Movie is its title, which makes it sound like a documentary about movies. It’s actually about the downturn in American manufacturing and the attendant collapse of the middle class. It’s a strong subject, one that hasn’t been fully explored in a theatrical doc, and writer Ryan C. Wilson and directors Nathaniel Thomas McGill and Vincent Vittorio do a solid if unexceptional job of tackling it. The movie begins, rather cleverly, with a sequence shot at a baseball game. According to the narrator, this great American pastime is barely even American anymore, at least when looked at from a manufacturing angle. As the camera pans from player to player, taking in the whole field, small labels—“Made in Hong Kong,” “Made in Japan”—appear next to each piece of equipment and clothing. Practically the only item still made in the grand ol’ U.S. of A. is the Louisville Slugger bat, which seems to have survived based solely on nostalgia.
From here, the filmmakers go on to explain how the middle class was essentially born out of the post-WWII manufacturing boom, and how the gradual outsourcing of jobs to overseas competitors has resulted in the massive unemployment and income disparity seen today. (According to a man named Paco Underhill, who is identified onscreen as a “retail anthropologist,” the U.S. lost a third of its manufacturing jobs over the last decade, and 60 percent of everything Americans buy today comes from outside the country.) The filmmakers then examine a bunch of American companies that are trying to turn things around: the Massachusetts-based New Balance, the Mississippi-based Viking Range oven company, the New Jersey-based flag manufacturer Annin, etc.
It’s all solidly informative, but there isn’t much drama here, nor is there much depth. Many questions go unanswered, like if American companies bring manufacturing back to the States, how can they compete with countries like China that have terrible labor laws? Notably, all of the successful American businesses examined are high-end brands, ones that don’t really try to compete based on price. It’s hard to imagine makers of disposable consumer goods like toys or computers succeeding on American soil in the same way.
Still, there’s enough here to merit a watch. One of the movie’s more unexpected pleasures is Alexander Falk’s handsome digital cinematography, which goes far beyond the call of duty for a micro-budget documentary. The most elaborate sequences, such as the baseball game, have a pleasingly glossy sheen, and Falk has a great eye for abandoned industrial landscapes—he makes them strangely beautiful and unaccountably sad, like silver nitrate prints of places long gone and forgotten. Unusual for a doc, the images say much more than the words do.