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The Tragedy of Tim Cullen
A new film’s vision of a political war.

Filmmakers Brad Lichtenstein and Nicole Docta

Brad Lichtenstein sees his new documentary “As Goes Janesville,” screening Saturday at the Milwaukee Film Festival, as a tragedy on three fronts: (1) the perils of political polarization, (2) the daunting difficulty of rebuilding a decimated economy with family-sustaining jobs, and (3) the impossibility of political compromise in a time of ideological contrarianism.

The first two defeats play out in the tale of a well-meaning group of local economic development leaders who rally under the banner of “Rock County 5.0,” a Janesville-based association chaired by a local bank executive, Mary Willmer, and a Beloit businesswoman (and billionaire GOP backer), Diane Hendricks. They ally with Gov. Scott Walker as he unveils Act 10, his signature bill cutting the collective bargaining rights of public employees, only to find themselves swept up in the public outcry. On-camera, they’re mostly impervious to it, but Willmer, driving to an annual banquet of business leaders in one scene, passes through a gauntlet of raucous protestors who boo her through her open window, and she says, “This is horrible. I’m really enjoying getting yelled at today.” Inside, Walker takes to the stage, in front of a banner that reads, “Rock County: Wisconsin is open for business.”

Willmer and the other members of Rock County 5.0 are tight-lipped on union issues throughout most of the film. Lichtenstein and his crew spent months with them, filming their meetings and following them around town. Lichtenstein, a long-time producer of documentaries and founder of the docUWM program at UW-Milwaukee, says he stopped rolling whenever his subjects asked him to. Sometimes that meant giving leaders such as Willmer a chance to gather their thoughts before broaching an issue, such as when she tells a leader at a non-union company that “it sounds like you’ve got a model that absolutely works.” In another scene that unfolds with greater spontaneity, she implores a teacher’s union official upset over the layoff of 200 teachers to prevent the controversy from tarnishing the school district’s image. The district is key to attracting employers to the area, she says.

The former GM Assembly plant in Janesville

“Divide and conquer”

Lichtenstein didn’t set out to make a partisan film, he says, though that’s the impression many viewers may have going into the theater. In May, with Wisconsin divided cleanly between those who supported recalling Walker from office and those who didn’t, Lichtenstein released a harmless-seeming trailer promoting the movie. Embedded in the promo was a truncated version of a scene in which Walker greets Hendricks before a meeting with the Rock County 5.0. She asks, “Any chance we’ll ever get to be a completely Red State and work on these unions?” And Walker says, “We’re going to start in a couple weeks with our budget adjustment bill. The first step is we’re going to deal with collective bargaining for all public employee unions because you divide and conquer.”

That’s the phrase – “divide and conquer” – seized on by Walker opponents from the state Democratic Party to Daily Kos. Lichtenstein set out to make a film that fairly portrayed a variety of viewpoints, including those of both business leaders and union workers, in a way that would challenge viewers’ existing beliefs. The last thing he wanted was for the film to get pigeonholed as a Michael Moore-style polemic. But he also knew as a veteran filmmaker (and teacher) that in a thicket of competition, he had “one shot” to elevate the film. “I’m not naïve,” he says, “but I had no idea it would take off the way it did.”

Willmer was “incredibly upset,” he says. She saw the trailer as a “PR move,” he says, “which was partially true, but for us, it was one piece in a series of pieces.”

Since it was first released, the “divide and conquer” clip has been baffling for the level of intimacy on display. Walker is describing (and possibly exaggerating) an explosive political stratagem to one of his largest contributors. And there’s more: Edited out of the trailer but present in the complete film is a comment from Willmer, who tells Walker, “You’re right on target. That’s what we need.”

How did Lichtenstein get this kind of access? First, he started making a film with little interest in politics. After the General Motors plant in Janesville closed in 2008, he embarked on what he calls a “listening tour,” asking local people, “What do you think the story is here?” Lichtenstein’s wife, Anne Basting, director of the Center on Age and Community at UWM, grew up in Janesville. Her father was a partner in Paul Ryan’s law firm. (Ryan toured Janesville with Lichtenstein, but those segments were either left on the cutting room floor or relegated to the film’s website.)

After deciding to shadow Rock County 5.0’s efforts to re-imagine the Janesville economy, Lichtenstein sat through hours upon hours of the group’s board meetings. Some were no more exciting than a chat about the colors used in a promotional brochure. By the time of Walker’s election, the filmmaker had already spent about a year in close contact with Willmer, Hendricks and other leaders.

Still, the local bank exec was cautious in Feb. 2011 when Walker arrived to meet the Rock County 5.0 board and reporters. Hendricks wanted to wait downstairs – the official meeting was planned for an upstairs conference room – to chat one-on-one with Walker beforehand, out of the earshot of any reporters. Lichtenstein, apparently, didn’t qualify. He asked to go down with her, and she agreed over Willmer’s misgivings.

Lichtenstein is downstairs and rolling when Walker strides in. The raw footage runs seven to eight minutes. Walker notices the camera, but Hendricks assures the new governor, “He’s with us.” Mindful of fairness, Lichtenstein explains to the governor he’s making a documentary for PBS and nothing shot will be seen for almost a year. (He kept this promise as the trailer wasn’t released until May 2012.)

Walker says, “Oh, cool,” and carries on chatting with Hendricks.

After giving her the preview of Act 10, they talk about tort reform (another plank in Walker’s agenda) and climb into the elevator to go upstairs. On the way, there’s some chit-chat about Paul Jadin, the former mayor of Green Bay Walker has just appointed to head up the state Department of Commerce.

Walker and Hendricks, in Lichtenstein's lens

Cullen’s defeat

The final tragedy, and possibly the saddest in Lichtenstein’s eyes, is the failure of State Sen. Tim Cullen (D-Janesville) to broker a compromise between the 14 Democratic state senators who fled to Illinois and the Walker camp. Lichtenstein followed Cullen and State Sen. Bob Jauch (D-Poplar) to a hotel just over the state line in Illinois, where Cullen haggles on a cell phone with what appear to be Walker staffers. Cullen and Jauch, who have chosen lodging separate from the other 12 senators, try to work out a deal to trim off some of the legislation’s measures they see as superfluous to fixing the state budget, such as a requirement for unions to hold yearly elections to remain certified.

Cullen feels betrayed when the tape of Walker speaking to a prank caller impersonating David Koch is released. In the conversation, the governor says of Cullen, “He’s pretty reasonable, but he’s not one of us. He’s not there for political reasons. He’s just trying to get something done. He’s not a conservative. He’s just a pragmatist.” The film cuts between a bold Walker on Fox News, the state capitol teeming with protestors, and Cullen slumped over at his desk, looking demoralized.

Intrigue aside, only about 12 minutes of the film are dedicated to Act 10. In the rest, Lichtenstein and co-producer Nicole Docta follow two GM workers who relocate to a plant in Fort Wayne, Indiana, leaving their families behind in Janesville. A third woman graduates from a local technical college and lands a job as a lab technician at a local hospital. All three subjects stare down poor job prospects with even poorer pay. The cost of remaining in Janesville’s manufacturing industry is too high since the union jobs paying $28 an hour evaporated.

Rock County 5.0 lures a medical startup to town with a $9 million incentive package. Only one city council member balks at the price tag, saying it amounts to a fifth of the city’s budget. But the measure passes 4-1-1, with one member abstaining. One man who says he feels like “a pair of brown shoes in a room full of tuxedos” speaks out against the package during a public comment period. The facility is only expected to hire about 120 people, nowhere close to the 11,000 jobs lost when GM closed.

“As Goes Janesville” plays at the Milwaukee Film Festival on Saturday at 5 p.m. in the Oriental Theatre and again on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. After the Saturday showing, a fundraiser will follow at the Alterra café located around the corner on Prospect Avenue to benefit Biz Labs, an effort to organize workshops around the state and country that bring together business and labor interests “to have the difficult discussion nobody wants to have right now,” Lichtenstein says. His company, 371 Productions, followed a similar approach with another film, “Almost Home,” about life in a nursing home. It led to more than 200 workshops, he estimates. For “As Goes Janesville,” 371 Productions is already planning on a series of events in Beloit and Nashville, Tenn.

And the film makes its Janesville premiere on Sunday at Parker High School. Free seats for the showing are going fast, if they haven’t run out already.

Tim Cullen

(photos courtesy of 371 Productions)

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