AAM at the Movies: Man, Gung Ho Stinks!

By Matthew McMullan
Mar 11 2024 |
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A film about a Japanese takeover of an American auto factory could have been interesting. Instead, it was thin and moralizing in the wrong way.

In honor of this weekend’s Academy Awards, the Alliance for American Manufacturing brings you another edition of AAM At The Movies. And in light of the growing concern about the threat to domestic auto manufacturers from foreign competitors, we decided to pick a movie that attempts to examine such a threat. We picked 1986’s Gung Ho. Ever see Gung Ho? No?

I missed this movie in the theaters, but according to box office receipts plenty of others didn’t; it made approximately $36 million on a $18 million budget, and this was in 1986 dollars. Not bad! And yet, while there were hundreds of films made in the 1980s that made a lasting impression on pop culture – the movie that director Ron Howard made right after this one was Willow, a flick that has had some staying power – Gung Ho isn’t among them.

Gung Ho’s premise is the takeover of an idled car factory in a working-class Pennsylvania burg by a Japanese auto company, which seems like an interesting story to tell. But this one just kinda muddles along before reaching for a questionable moral conclusion and then wrapping up with a silly, feelgood ending. It’s two hours long and feels a lot longer than that.

Here’s the gist: A pre-Beetlejuice Michael Keaton stars as a fast-talking middle manager named Hunt who travels to Tokyo to pitch Japanese auto executives on investing in his recently shuttered hometown factory, and then once back in Pennsylvania he sells the new enterprise to the unemployed workers at a union meeting. The workforce quickly dismisses the union official as ineffectual and jumps at the chance to work at the auto plant again. For the auto plant, we can surmise, is the only game in town.

But Gung Ho doesn’t spend much time delving into why the laid-off workers in that union hall are eager to get back on the job or exploring the surrounding economic precarity that is only hinted at. Upon returning from Japan, for example, Hunt notes the closure of a pizza shop. The only business that’s doing well, his girlfriend observes, is the moving company. Everyone’s leaving town because the local economy has dried up.

This scene, however, lasts all of about 30 seconds, and the story moves on from the union meeting in predictable ways. The casual and loud American workers, led by a loutish racist played by George Wendt, clash with the stuffy and serious Japanese management, led by an overworked salaryman named Gedde Watanabe (played by Oishi Kazihiro, who is actually pretty good in this role). It culminates in a strike over wages, brought about by a lie regarding production quotas told by Hunt, who’s trying to please everybody.

And when in the emotional climax of the movie he is called out for it by the workers – his colleagues, and lifelong friends and neighbors – Hunt says this:

“You don’t want the truth,” he says. “You want to hear that Americans do things better than anybody else. They’re kicking our butts and that ain’t luck. That’s the truth.

“Sure, the great old American do-or-die spirit … Yeah it’s alive, but they (the Japanese) got it! We better get it back, damn fast. Instead, we’re strutting around telling each other how great we are, patting each other on the back.”

This speech comes about 90 minutes into a nearly two-hour movie and is presented without any of the context of why the factory had been idled in the first place. But we have been provided plenty of context about the workers. They want raises, to work fewer hours, and think Japanese quality standards are too exacting. And shortly after this speech they break their own strike, hustle up, meet the quota and earn a raise from the company CEO, to whom they’ve proved their worth. Americans can work hard when properly motivated. The end.

And so the ultimate comment made by Gung Ho is this: The slump the domestic auto industry experienced in the late ’70s and early ’80s – and the hundreds of thousands of layoffs that resulted from it – wasn’t because the Ayatollah seized power and gas prices shot up around the world, or because American auto executives decided to make bad cars. It happened because American workers are coddled and lazy, and they better get with the times.

Here’s how the late, great Roger Ebert put it:

The movie feels more like an attack on labor unions than a clash of alien cultures, and the message seems to be that the American car industry would be as successful as the Japanese if our workers were willing to work for $8 an hour, seven days a week, with unpaid overtime, just because of their patriotic pride.

It’s a real sour note to sound, especially when the movie does so little else to examine what this factory obviously means to the community it’s in. They spent $18 million to tell the movie-going public this?

In conclusion, don’t waste your time dusting this one off. But if you’re interested in exploring what deindustrialization does to an American town much more fully, there are some very thoughtful documentaries out there.

Roger & Me, which came out in 1989, is probably the best film that Michael Moore has ever produced; in it, he captures the layoffs and the resulting emotional and financial stress placed on autoworkers in Flint, Michigan after General Motors decided to send thousands of jobs to nonunionized plants in Mexico.

In 2009 came a 30-minute film called The Last Truck, which chronicles the closing of a GM assembly plant near Dayton, Ohio. It’s not an easy watch, but it’s available on HBO. Ten years later, the same filmmakers produced American Factory, which is about that same Ohio facility’s refurbishment by a Chinese automotive glass company, which hires back the local workforce at half the pay that GM once offered, defeats a United Auto Workers organizing drive, and then fires the employees sympathetic to the union. It’s fascinating, still fresh, and is available on Netflix.

And of course, there’s a new little documentary film called Relighting the Flame that we are fond of, which tells the story of the new generation of steelworkers who are rebuilding American industry in states like Ohio and Indiana. We’ve embedded it below.