The story of America bundles enlightenment ideals, slavery, capitalist innovation, racism, poverty, civil rights, the moon landing, the suburbs, baseball, jazz, the Constitution, and a million other points dark and light into a confusing, conflicting, red, white and blue kaleidoscope.
The story of Americans, viewed through a certain lens, is simpler. It’s about people and their jobs, about making it work in chaos, about resilience, toughness, and hustle.
This focus on work is what I love about the new slice-of-American-life HBO documentary film, Our Towns, based on Jim and Deb Fallows’ book about reporting around the country in a small plane, and gorgeously filmed by veteran doc makers Steven Ascher and Jeanne Jordan (Directors of Troublesome Creek, So Much So Fast, and Raising Renee).
The Fallows spent much of the decade traveling the U.S. after moving back from China in 2011. I met them on their trip to Pittsburgh in 2019, and we hit it off over our shared rule of journalistic engagement in small towns: No talking about Trump. Because everything else is more interesting. I had just released the PBS film Moundsville, my own attempt, with Dave Bernabo, to try to understand America. I grew up in Brussels to parents who emigrated from America in 1976 to work in European classic music. Moving to the U.S. in 2011, and witnessing the 2016 election, filled me with a very big question. What exactly is this country?
In answering that question, Our Towns offers a palette of answers. America is about public art, local newspapers, farming, developing timberland, and making guitars. There’s even a cowboy in this movie. In its wide range, the documentary is visually stunning, farms and fields, cities and ski slopes, from sea to shining sea. If you spooled all the B-roll with a country soundtrack, it might make a good Ronald Reagan 1984 reelection commercial.
But this is reporting, not propaganda, because it also shows the pain of racism, deindustrialization, opioid addiction, and dozens of other American problems. True to the Fallows mantra of never talking national politics at the local level, there’s nothing of any president in this film.
There are places and their people. There are economies. There are people figuring out the work, planting new roots in the grass. As Jim Fallows articulates it in a recent essay presenting the film:
The importance of flexible, local-level innovation, and the fertile creativity of American society at all its levels, is one of the most familiar themes in American history. It is part of what Alexis de Tocqueville remarked upon in the 1800s. It was the basis of Louis Brandeis’s famous remark, in a 1932 Supreme Court dissent, that localities and states, in their diversity, were the real “laboratories of democracy” for a complex nation. It is a theme that has run through dozens of Deb’s and my reports.
Fallows, a veteran correspondent for The Atlantic, is from the Inland Empire, the region that wraps Riverside, San Bernardino and Ontario into one megalopolis east of Los Angeles. It’s a place where the Norton Air Force base employed 12,000 people, pumping billions of dollars a year into the local economy. In 1994, it closed, and became a scrapyard for planes. In 2012, San Bernardino declared bankruptcy.
Appropriately, Our Towns starts its tour of America by showing how that region is coping. We meet immigrant fruit farmers picking and sorting oranges. The Inland Empire is also a main transit point for companies like Amazon warehousing and distributing consumer goods imported from Asia and shipped to the rest of the U.S.
Managing the reality of getting work pulled out from under you, because of forces beyond your control, without much of a state safety net, defines what it means to be an American as much as anything, I think. Do you move on and flee to a big city? Do you stay and try to build something else? Do you start a new business or work for somebody else? (In Moundsville, we met a man, Fred Wilkerson, who started his own small glassmaking shop after getting laid off from the Fostoria glass factory.)
American workers have had to take a lot of punches, from slavery to flaming industrial factories to the McJob and Amazon service economy. Hundreds of manufacturing towns lost all their factories in a couple dizzying decades after 1980, completely redefining work for a generation of American, making all kinds of people poorer, and challenging all of us to come up with a better way.
But what Our Towns wants to say about America is that these difficult challenges can mean hope not despair. And it’s not an indictment of a social safety net, unions, or a higher minimum wage, but it does celebrate private free enterprise.
Jack and Laura Dangermond based their mapping technology company Esri in Redlands because they’re from there, and because it has “a pace of life which is human.” Thanks to investments from companies like Esri, pop. 71,500, the city is coming back. Charly Hamilton, a brilliant mural artist, paints buildings in Charleston, West Virginia, not New York, New York, because he loves the town.
The hope is in people like this, and city planners attracting new businesses and laying community-friendly grids, remote internet workers repopulating small towns, and entrepreneurs founding breweries and bookstores on troubled main streets.
“My view of American history is that the country’s always been in trouble,” says Jim Fallows in Our Towns. “Wherever we go, people have a certain kind of stubbornness. Even when things are dark, they’re imaging a better future.”
That’s not always true, of course — reality is complicated, some of our towns will die out — but it often is, and those bright lights, all those people working, deserve a big screen.
John W. Miller