Chrysler’s Halftime Lesson: Government Investment for America’s Rebound

Once again, Chrysler had one of the best ads in yesterday’s Super Bowl, once again using the aesthetic of Detroit disaster porn to offer gritty inspiration. And while it’s not as good as the Eminem version last year, it might appeal to Chrysler’s target market even more, as it generalizes the uncertainty so many people feel.

I was struck by an irony at the core of the ad, though. Eminem really does embody Detroit. Clint Eastwood, in contrast, has no such personal tie to the city. And while his gritty voice works great for the ad. His delivery of, “This country can’t be knocked out with one punch” perfectly caught his performed toughness (it reminded me of his Million Dollar Baby, which I loved).

The one other reason to choose Eastwood for this ad, it seems to me, is the role he played as Walt Kowalski in his Gran Torino. That guy, an old Korean war vet struggling with the increasing diversity of his lifetime neighborhood, did embody Detroit, as much as Eminem does.

Yet, as written, Kowalski was not a lifetime Detroiter. Rather, screenwriter Nick Schenk based him on a bunch of veterans he met while working in a liquor store in his native Twin Cities. (h/t Wizardkitten)

“And in all of those jobs, especially in the liquor store, I would meet a lot of guys who were vets,” he said.

Schenk recalls asking customers with military tattoos about where and when they served.

“Little by little, as they came in every day for their bottle of ‘medicine,’ they’d tell you a little bit more,” he said.

“If you were respectful — I think everyone wants to get stuff off their chest, and they’re not going to tell their wives, they’re not going to tell their kids — and so if they can find an outlet to dump it out off on, that was me. I had a lot of guys telling me stories for years,” he said.

Those experiences helped him shape the character of Walt Kowalski, a Korean War veteran played by Clint Eastwood.

And the Hmong community was based on the Twin Cities’ sizable Hmong community.

Gran Torino, that tale of troubled old America coming into conflict with, and learning to love, the future of America, was shot in Detroit rather than the Twin Cities because of government intervention. The film was shot during the period when film credits offered under Jennifer Granholm and cut under Rick Snyder brought lots of new, creative jobs to MI; it was one of the first big films to be shot using the credits. Walt Kowalski was a native Detroiter only because MI invested in making him one.

And so Clint Eastwood, that Bay Area native who told a story about the Twin Cities but set it in Detroit, generalized the Detroit-specific ad about resilience from last year. But both the invocation of the Chrysler bailout and the use of Eastwood remind that rebounds work best when governments invest.

One more detail: this story–as told by Chrysler–leaves out a key part of the story. As John Nichols reported this morning, Chrysler specifically edited unions out of this story.

At the fifty-second point in the ad, images from last year’s mass pro-union protests in Madison, Wisconsin, were featured.

But something was missing: union signs.

The images from Madison appear to have been taken from a historic video by Matt Wisniewski, a Madison photographer whose chronicling of the protests drew international attention and praise. Wisniewski’s work went viral, and was even featured in a video by rocker Tom Morello.

Wisniewski’s original video, from an evening rally at the King Street entrance to the Wisconsin Capitol, features images (at the two-minute, seventeen-second mark) of signs raised by members of Madison Teachers Inc. (MTI), the local education union that played a pivotal role in the protests. One sign features the MTI logo, another reads: “Care About Educators Like They Care for Your Child.”

In the Chrysler ad, the MTI logo is missing and the “Care About Educators…” sign is replaced with one featuring an image of an alarm clock. Several other union signs are simply whited out.

It’s an incomplete picture, because government support is not enough to bring on America’s second half. But it is a key part of it.

Update: Karl Rove hates it. Always a good sign, in my book.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

13 replies
  1. Bob Schacht says:

    Thanks for highlighting this commercial that I, too, thought one of the best Superbowl ads. I, too, connected Eastwood with his role in Gran Torino, but your analysis adds many insights and observations that I missed.

    I think maybe the Labor Unions could do well to take this commercial, and last year’s SB ad, edit them a little to bring unions back into the picture, and use them in the upcoming campaign season. They are, after all, about what kind of country we want ours to be, and that’s a conversation Obama wants to have.

    Bob in AZ

  2. bittersweet says:

    Burnt and I were struck by this too. I said, “hey what does Clint have to do with Detroit, or struggling for that matter.” Burnt wisely stated that the Chrysler ad was the perfect re-elect Obama ad, as he pushed for the car industry bailout.
    As far as a great commercial, I apply teh cry test. It brought a righteous tear to my eye,…so it is good!
    I realized that it played into the American myth. We do not believe that the world is set up to beat us. We believe we can beat the odds. We do not believe we are stuck in a class society. We believe that anyone can work hard and prosper. For better or worse. This is what we are taught, and the Chrysler commercial reminds us of our core beliefs.

  3. bmaz says:

    Yeah, you know, it is, after all, still a car ad at root. Chrysler did it to sell cars ultimately, not take a political stance on one side or the other; once you remember that, it is fairly understandable why they chose to de-unionize the ad as they did. I got no problem with that.

  4. Stu Burton says:

    Has anybody mentioned the “first half / second half” as it might portend to term one and term two in an Obama Administration? that struck me as a subliminal suggestion

  5. petrocelli says:

    Clint Eastwood shares a similar story as the Big 2.5 … he was written off by the PTB in his field[Hollywood] and persevered. He created several niche roles and made a great living. He also directed some Oscar Winning performances and is said to be a very easy director to work with.

    He represents the American Dream … Never.Give.Up.

  6. rugger9 says:

    Though we ruggers still don’t like how he kicked us out of the Hog’s Breath. It’s not like he’d never seen rugby parties at the Monterey tournament. Or worse….

    All the same, Rhodes noted today that Clint was first choice to be GHWB’s running mate due to the recognition and [I presume] solid GOP bonafides at the time. This for a mayor of Carmel, not a very large city.

    He was still with Sondra then, it was about this time he met and married Dina Ruiz, she was an anchor for the local NBC station, a pretty good journo as I recall.

  7. Bob Schacht says:

    And a third reason to use Eastwood in this ad: Republicans know about his politics and his rep as a tough guy. If they’d used, say, George Clooney instead, Republicans would take one look and head towards the kitchen or bathroom for a break. But since it was Clint, Republicans would be tempted to stay around, and see what the ad was about. It is not obviously a Chrysler ad, and because of Clint, it is not obviously a leftist screed, either. With Clint, it holds more people’s attention for longer than it would have gotten with anyone else.

    Bob in AZ

  8. Rirer Capital says:

    What’s lost in praise for the Auto bail out was the Unions had to agree to no-strike clauses. Sure, rescuing Detroit was for the best, but Unions surrendering their right to Strike was a bit much.

    I found the ad jingoist and pie-eyed. “If we can all come together and look past certain things greatness will return.” As a leftist who hates DLC “feel good bi-partisan corporate friendly reform” it seemed a reproach aimed at OWS. Just my take, I could be wrong.

  9. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Many thanks for correcting the record. Leave it to an auto company to Orwell out of its story the existence and importance of unions, both to the companies they work for and the communities they help build and sustain.

    It fits the methodology of today’s large corporations, which is to do all that is humanly possible to separate themselves from the people and places that do their work and give them value, so as not to taint executive decision-making through emotional ties to people and place. It worked for Newt Gingrich, who radicalized the GOP and made its junior members utterly dependent on their seniors and their pay-to-play system by severing ties between GOP congresscritters and their opposite numbers, as well as from the life of DC generally, its schools, churches, PTA’s, families and problems.

    In short, politicians and today’s top executives’ ethos is to insulate themselves from those about whom they make decisions, thus ensuring their self-referential radicalization.

  10. Stephen says:

    “the world is gonna hear the roar of our engines”. I think ME countries are gonna stick to soccer. Go Clint, make my day. To bad Eastwood can’t mention banksters and the MIC in his rah-rah for the nation. By the way are those “engines” Clint is referring to attached to drones?

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