Saturday, December 23, 2023

80's Watch: Gung Ho (1985)

Watched:  12/21/2023
Format:  YouTubeTV
Viewing:  Unknown
Director:  Ron Howard

You're remembering this movie a particular way because you haven't seen it in three decades and we've all grown up since then.  I hope.  But, I am happy to say - for a 1980's movie about Japanese executives coming to revive a Pennsylvania auto-plant, it's far less racist than you're assuming, while also being standard 1980's racist.

All I knew was that last night, Jamie looked at the menu on our TV said "Gung Ho?!  Let's watch that."  And we did.  Like myself, Jamie is often curious about how things hold up, and where they fit as cultural artifacts of the era.  And, first and foremost - if I needed to explain mid-80's America and what it was kind of like, especially what people looked like, I'd probably point them in the direction of Gung Ho (1985).  

The 1980's are remembered by the people who weren't there as a period of fun and excess.  It was Reagan-time, and we were feeling great as a nation!  We had action movies and cool pop music.  We had an existential threat of nuclear war, so we might as well wear huge clothes and watch shows about super-vehicles.

But, hey, we also had a few recessions.  We were coming off of the 1970's recessions/ malaise.  Manufacturing in the US was on the downturn and careers people thought would last a lifetime were ended as work went overseas or to Mexico.  I sincerely don't think The Kids(tm) know this sometimes.

The 80's also very much made movies about working class people and their concerns, something almost alien now in cinema.  You might get abject poverty in a film, but you don't often see blue-collar workers unless it's someone for our hero to beat up.  It was not unusual to have a lead who was making it happen in a factory or slinging hash or whatever, the sorts of things actual people do.  And to make a movie about that work now?  Unthinkable, except as a documentary or reality series.  

Also, for some reason in the 1980's we were convinced Japan was going to dominate the US economically, a nice xenophobic and existential threat to fill magazine covers and news stories but which just really meant the Japanese figured out quality control in a way Americans did not.  There's a reason a lot of us who came of age in the 80's still look at a Japanese make before an American car and don't long for the days of Zenith making the family TV.  But, yeah, if you wonder why Holly was working for the Nakatomi Corp in the Die Hard, there you go.

All of that piles into the context of what we get in Gung Ho, a movie in which Michael Keaton's terrible pitch for a successful Japanese auto manufacturer to come buy a factory in his hometown and start making cars there - works out!  They come!  And then the cultural divide provides both tension and comedy.  

Keaton's co-star is Gedde Watanabe, an 80's and 90's icon, who is only a couple years here from his role as a teen in Sixteen Candles and playing probably 3-4 years older than his 30 years in Gung Ho.  His warmth and natural charisma serves him well as the guy trying to make this work and deal with the inexplicable behavior of the Americans even as he knows he was not a great fit for the culture at HQ in Japan.  He's by far my favorite part of the film.

Keaton is great!  He always is.  But the part he plays aged poorly.  It's just too much in the early scenes as he jack-asses his way through Japan, and the sort of "whoops, did that wrong" stuff he does that drives the back half of the movie just seems... dumb?  Unlikable?  Implausible?  And so it's just his innate Keaton-ness and scenes with Watanabe that makes it work if it works at all.  But he's asked to play bits written to communicate to dopes in flyover country that he's messing up in front of the Japanese board when those audience members have zero context for what would be a faux pas in a Japanese board room.

What the movie makes clear is that it isn't picking a side.  It heightens what was being reported about Japan's salaryman work and life culture, and the blue collar American schlub who believes being American makes them innately superior/ right.  

We have an interesting supporting cast here.  Mimi Rogers plays Keaton's girlfriend, George Wendt, Clint Howard, Rick Overton and John Turturro.  Rance Howard plays the town mayor.  And 80's kids will remember Sab Shimono and others who played "the Japanese guy" in a bunch of stuff at the time, plus Patti Yasutake who Next Generation fans will remember as Nurse Ogawa (man, that was driving me nuts trying to get who that was).

Honestly, it's sort of a brave moment in film.  I don't know of too many films that just look at America and say "hey, your American Exceptionalism shit is nonsense, and you're resting on your laurels.  If you want to be the best, you have to do the work.  All these guys are doing is trying to give you jobs" while also saying "your work culture may not fit great here, Japan, but if you bend some and meet us where we live, this is going to be great".  Like, that's kind of management 101.  

But, sure, it was funny in 1985 to imagine American autoworkers doing morning calisthenics, but now I'd kill for something like that.  And it provides that needed stress and comedy to see the new bosses enforcing manufacturing principles while also overstepping what Americans consider their rights as workers (thank a Union guy if you like being able to use your sick time as you like).  

Anyway, yeah, it's not always kind to our friends from Japan, but nor is it kind to the jackassery of Americans, calling them out for expecting things on a platter and reacting badly to people doing things differently (the softball stuff is really solid).  

Of course, in the decades since, Japanese-American partnerships for deploying factories in the states has become common practice, as has replacing people with robots to handle consistency in manufacturing.  But, generally, I think we've mostly got this sorted, and I think we have far bigger problems from American business oligarchs and monopolies than we'll ever have from Japanese economic domination.

Mostly, it's started to really bother me that we don't get major release motion pictures about everyday Americans anymore.  Like, look, I love me some robots, apes and Godzillas as much as your next dork, but when was the last time we had a major release comedy about anything, let alone people in a depressed American town trying to meet ends meet?  Like, the 1970's and 80's did that standing on their heads.  

But I guess when your executives are all from Harvard, it gets harder to get them to see the appeal or value.  And, arguably, about 20 years ago we all decided we're two minutes away from fame and fortune, and so winners are who we want to relate to on screen.  We're in a really weird place where we've forgotten underdog stories in place of stories of perfectly successful people becoming more successful. 

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