TV Previews: Hank Stuever on 'The Last Truck' and 'Families Stand Together'

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 7, 2009

The General Motors truck assembly plant in Moraine, Ohio, outside Dayton, closed a couple of days before Christmas last year, leaving 2,200 workers and 200 managers without jobs. By one calculation in the morose but absorbing documentary "The Last Truck," airing Monday night on HBO, each lost job at the plant caused the loss of five to seven more jobs nearby.

Which, of course, rippled outward to us all. In the days leading up to the shutdown, Paul "Popeye" Hurst, a 53-year-old toolmaker with a ZZ Top beard, drives around the plant's perimeter, forlornly noting the acres of parking lots filled with unsold SUVs: "Makes me sad to see all these vehicles sittin' here."

It's a striking sight, the end of several dreams at once, some more obvious than others. It's like an economic snuff film. Not just the plant dies; American notions of giant, expensive cars for all, endless oil, rural sprawl, etc., are now in doubt. "The Last Truck" gently visits these themes, following the Moraine shutdown to the point where the final vehicle rolls off the line. Ohio filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert have given their tightly edited project a purposeful spareness, a gloom of recession fatigue.

But it's a gripping bit of microcosm. Many of the interviews are conducted in the plant parking lot, workers talking as they sit in their cars with the windows down, arriving for their shifts or leaving. There's a lot of talk about how America doesn't make anything anymore. (Which is not entirely true; we do still make HBO, but you get the point.)

We meet a handful of other employees more intimately, in their favorite bar or at their homes. Everything is painfully real -- especially Ohio itself in the dully depressing December light -- and absolutely mesmerizing. The autoworkers seen here are far from the stereotype of the entitled union crank. Like all autoworkers, they set us straight on the difficulty of factory labor and correct our math on what they actually take home in pay. They are gentle, given to happiness, easy to cry, and completely unsure of their futures. There's a lot of hugging on the factory floor, even before the last truck arrives.

Many of them are obviously in love with what is essentially a massive square building the size of the Pentagon. They arrive on their penultimate day to take home their tools and tool benches, which GM allowed them to keep (to build what now?). They are each given an aerial photo of the plant as a going-away present. At the final hour, as the last SUV makes its way to the end, the finished workers swell together and say their goodbyes. It felt "like this big, giant dragon [was] laying down," one worker notes, wiping her tears, "and taking its last breath."

Bognar and Reichert's narrative fails in only spot, at the end, not answering a question that seems answerable with a VIN and a dogged reporter: Where is the "last truck" now? Did anyone buy it?

* * *

Things aren't going so well for Elmo, either. The "Sesame Street" resident is delighted to learn that his mother is going to be staying home more, but then he's told in Elmo-terms that mommy has been laid off. Elmo's grizzly, artsy, stay-at-home dad doesn't seem to have gainful employment, either. Maybe someone familiar with Elmoworld can tell me the story about that.

I do know that "Sesame Street" was always the world's happiest ghetto, so once again it's the perfect place for PBS to help children face a topical crisis head-on. "Families Stand Together: Feeling Secure in Tough Times," which airs Wednesday at 8 p.m., finds the street blocked off for a "community market," where residents are selling their used junk to one another: A Muppet lamb is hawking "completely natural" sweaters and Grover (still dense after all these years) has shown up to purchase a community. ("You mean I can't buy a whole community?" he asks.)

Grover is, of course, a PhD compared with pipsqueaky Elmo, who is shopping the community market with his special co-hosts, "Today" show weatherman Al Roker and his wife, "20/20's" Deborah Roberts, who sympathetically talk a lot about "these tough times" and "this economy," without once mentioning their combined network-anchor salaries.

Roker and Roberts introduce us to four non-Muppet families who have actually fallen on hard times, among them a laid-off GM worker and a family who've lost their house to foreclosure.

"Sesame Street" is known for Muppets and alphabet primers, but it always had a certain eye for the power of good, short films about everyday domesticity. Forty years after it debuted, it's still fascinating to accompany the show into someone's home and see what they're like.

It's the patter with Roker and Roberts afterward that seems hackneyed, as they invite financial experts to talk to the parents about coping skills and clipping coupons. Elmo's mom is clipping coupons, too, and the family will have to forgo a trip to the pirate amusement park. Elmo is sad, but he takes it in stride, because, as we all learn to sing in a closing number (and with lyrical apologies to Captain & Tennille), love will keep us together.

As 1-2-3 as that seems on-screen, it's always a nice thing for children to know.

The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant (45 minutes) airs Monday at 9 p.m. on HBO.

Families Stand Together: Feeling Secure in Tough Times (one hour) airs Wednesday at 8 p.m. on WETA and MPT.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company