Monday, October 27, 2014
Another portrait of a former manufacturing giant hollowed out by the global economy's race to the bottom of the wage scale, Braddock America revisits depressingly familiar ground for anyone with an even cursory knowledge of the rusting of the Steel Belt. Films on this subject constitute a genre of their own, and this one stays mostly on well-trodden ground, contrasting present-day images of abandoned houses gone to seed, near-empty churches, and dynamited buildings with archival footage of the enormous steel mill that once offered the men of Braddock, Pennsylvania and their families a ladder to the American dream. Braddock America may lack the humor, creativity, and rib-jabbing cheekiness of classics like Roger & Me, but it's also mercifully free of the ruin-porn shots that turn so many contemporary films about struggling cities into self-consciously arty exercises in the romanticization of decay. Its goal is relatively modest: to capture the story of one town as it was experienced by a number of its residents. The stories they tell, usually addressing the camera directly, form an oral history of a golden era for America's working class—especially those who were white and male.
The people interviewed often get emotional as they talk about the thriving town they remember and the values and hard work that made them feel like part of something bigger than themselves (the mill, one man says proudly, made two-thirds of the steel needed on the Western European front during WWII.) The lack of title cards to identify the speakers, while unsettling at first, contributes to the film's emphasis on the community rather than the individual, while the informality of the interviews—people often stop to take a call, wait for a noisy train to go by, or address a friendly remark to the unseen filmmakers behind the camera—gives them an appealingly impromptu, unrehearsed feel.
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