New documentary recalls auto industry’s darkest days – USA TODAY
DETROIT — A new documentary revisits the grisly days of 2008 and 2009 leading to the bankruptcies of Chrysler and General Motors with some harsh takes on the UAW and on past management. And it is not kind to Steve Rattner, the man who led President Barack Obama’s auto task force.
The film, Live Another Day, opens Sept. 16 at theaters around the country. Co-producers are Didier Pietri, a former Disney and ABC network executive, and Bill Burke, a former Turner Broadcasting and Time Warner producer and executive.
Based on the book Crash Course, by former Wall Street Journal and Reuters executive Paul Ingrassia, the movie uses interviews with many people in the crucible of that crisis, footage of Congressional hearings and well-edited scenes of auto nostalgia, modern manufacturing and many Detroit and industry landmarks.
Retired GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz showers the film with his wisdom, much of it drawn in hindsight. Steve Miller, who once worked with Lutz at Chrysler but was involved with trying to restructure supplier Delphi in the midst of the larger crisis, comes across as a reasonable, even empathetic figure, in contrast to the villainous caricature the United Auto Workers union tried to depict.
Speaking of the union, Pietri and Burke pull no punches as several speakers in the film describe the UAW as a “monopoly” in reference to its leverage over the Detroit automakers, especially in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.
Author Ingrassia describes and gives credit to the UAW’s role in building the post World War II middle class, but suggests the union’s success became the companies’ liability.
Coming under focused attack is the Jobs Bank, a concept that protected workers’ income during economic downturns. But in years leading to the crisis that meant thousands of people receiving pay to not work.
“The UAW is a labor monopoly,” Pietri said. “When you ask people about monopolies in general people are not in favor of them. In our case, when we saw that…it was clear that there had been a situation where the UAW…extracted a number of benefits that the car companies could not afford.”
Former UAW President Ron Gettelfinger spoke to the filmmakers off camera, but does not appear in the film. Retired UAW President Bob King was interviewed in February 2014, just as the union was losing an election at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn.
For younger viewers whose economic awareness is centered on the last two or three years of robust profits and 2015’s record auto sales, or who think of cars in terms of Uber and the prospect of self-driving cars, this film delivers a stark reminder of how fast an economy can fall or rise.
Lutz, Obama task force member Ron Bloom and others recall thinking that it was impossible for GM to go bankrupt.
Similar to reliving a traumatic illness or personal crisis, viewers may cringe at the memories of plunging sales, mass layoffs and a credit freeze that drove new car sales to lows not seen since World War II. But for people who weren’t in the eye of that economic hurricane or not directly tied to Michigan’s most important industry, there’s valuable recent history here.
“We tried to be really objective,” Pietri said. “We’re not part of the Michigan or Washington ecosystem.”
For the most part they succeed. The film covers a vast number of complex events and weaves a compelling tale about the dramatic downfall and rescue of the American auto industry.
But with the myriad of players interviewed and perspectives offered, don’t expect your opinion of the historic auto bailout to be confirmed, no matter what your politics may be.
“It’s an incredibly multi-faceted American story,” Pietri said. “This is not just a movie about the crisis, … it’s a movie that is very respectful about Detroit, and the impact of the car industry. These are companies that make a product that make people dream.”
Burke and Pietri spent three years on the documentary and came away with the conclusion that the government decision to provide loans to GM and Chrysler and steer the companies through bankruptcy was necessary, swift and impressive — but far from perfect.
“It was not necessarily the ultimate success that it that been portrayed,” Pietri said.
Even thought the U.S. government lost about $10 billion on the $62.5 billion loaned and invested in GM and Chrysler. the funds and the restructuring of the automakers saved thousands of jobs and, analysts say, prevented the Midwest from sinking into a depression.
The federal government had to provide the loans because the nation’s banking and finance industry was crumbling at the same time, he said.
“The key thing here was it was clear there was no money available so the government had to intervene and provide financing,” he said.
Still, Pietri and Burke said they were surprised that Fiat was able to gain a controlling interest in Chrysler without initially contributing cash.
In the film, former Chrysler CEO Bob Nardelli argues that the Auburn Hills automaker had a plan to survive on its own and concludes, “We could have made it.”
Chrysler emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy in June 2009 with Fiat as a 20% shareholder. But over time, Fiat paid more than $5.6 billion to acquire full ownership of Chrysler and renamed the company Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. Today, FCA still faces many challenges but is a global automaker rather than the mostly North American automaker that Chrysler was.
The documentary doesn’t attempt to provide a deep assessment of the future of the American auto industry but does inform the viewer that GM and Chrysler are doing far better today, even as it points out that some structural challenges continue to exist that could come back to haunt the automakers.
“When we tell people about this film many of them say ‘the bailout was good, right?’ or the ‘bailout was bad, right?’ Burke said. “It’s like a lot of things. It’s something in between.”