PBS // 2012 // 120 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // February 23rd, 2013
The world he created he longed to escape.
Early in the American Experience documentary Henry Ford, a historian suggests that the America we are living in today is Henry Ford's America. During the early years of Ford's life, the automobile was a luxury item used only by the wealthiest individuals. Ford changed that with the invention of the Model-T, an automobile that was within the price range of the average American. Almost single-handedly, Ford changed the way Americans lived by giving them the freedom to travel with ease. The efficient, cost-effective techniques he used to create his vehicles would change the way manufacturing facilities across the nation were run. Alas, Ford was also a terrible, terrible person.
There were plenty of moments in which I wondered if the documentary really should have been titled Henry Ford: What a Jerk!. After quickly detailing the man's rise to power, the documentary spends the bulk of its time detailing the manner in which that power corrupted the famed entrepreneur. It is not a gentle portrait of an innovator, but an examination of a wealthy man's descent into full-blown villainy. It's not as if these facts have been hidden, but the fact that the documentary chooses to spotlight Ford's faults over his achievements is a wise decision that prevents the documentary from feeling like an audiovisual presentation of a chapter in a high school history book.
>From the beginning, Ford was comfortable with invading the privacy of those who worked for him. Yes, he paid his workers a generous wage during the early years, but he also had hired hands inspecting the homes of his employees to ensure that they were living the way Ford felt they should. To be a Ford employee, you had to be more than a competent worker. You had to be willing to adapt to Ford's rigid moral code. Among his rules: an employee couldn't have boarders living in their house, they couldn't drink, they couldn't socialize with others outside of their home and they couldn't have another job. Ford violated the privacy of his employees to an alarming degree, but many went along with it due to the generous wages they received as a reward.
These practices were bad enough early in Ford's life, but later he become even more tyrannical in the way he ran his business. He would dismiss faithful employees when he felt they were no longer of any value to him, he would fire many people in exceptionally cruel ways without sufficient cause, he would allow a culture of brutality to grow within his organization and he would even treat his own son with spite. On top of all of this, Ford was an outspoken racist, publishing tracts that blamed all of the world's problems on Jews. As one ugly fact after another was offered by the documentary, I almost started to feel a little guilty about driving a Ford Taurus (shut up, it's totally a manly car).
Still, one can't simply write Ford off as a monster and leave it at that. The fact of the matter is that he played a huge role in shaping society as we know it. Making the Model-T accessible to the average American eventually led to other manufacturers attempting to make all kinds of automobiles for all kinds of Americans. Ford had helped usher in a consumer culture -- a culture that he quickly grew to despise. He was a man who devoted much of his life to finding ways to help the downtrodden, and yet he oppressed his own employees to an alarming degree. He was a man of contradictions, and Henry Ford offers a striking portrait of a brilliant, cruel innovator lashing out at the world as he grows despondent over the changes he helped bring about.
Henry Ford has received a strong standard-def transfer, though much of the film is comprised of scratchy black-and-white video footage and stills. There are a few talking heads who pop up to comment, but most of what the film has to say comes from narrator Oliver Platt. The audio track gets the job done, though it's disappointing that we only get to hear Ford himself speak on a few brief occasions. There are no supplements included.
Henry Ford is an absorbing, sometimes chilling look at a deeply flawed but truly significant American businessman. Highly recommended.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 120 Minutes
Release Year: 2012
MPAA Rating: Not Rated