An unsuspecting team of documentarians is taken along for the ride when a projected three-week national strike by the once-powerful Teamsters Union against Overnite, the largest non-union trucking company in the country, turns into one of the longest and costliest walkouts in recent labor history. “Standoff,” produced by two-time Academy Award winner Barbara Kopple and directed by protegee Kristi Jacobson, lacks the extraordinary clarity of Kopple’s 1991 “American Dream.” But pic still packs an emotional wallop, dwelling effectively on the pain and confusion of strike organizers as they run out of options. Promising to be a strong fest and advocacy favorite, pic, backed by HBO, will air June 10 as part of its “America Undercover” series.
Docu studies labor’s dwindling power in the face of globalization, megabuck corporations and hostile government legislation. Concentrating on major locales in Memphis, Atlanta, Chicago and Long Island, with side trips to Boston, Richmond, Va., and Las Vegas, Jacobson charts the progress (or non-progress) of the union’s evolving strategies, zeroing in on individual strikers. At the same time, pic retains its original thrust as an examination of the Teamsters union itself, with its own internal strife and divisive legacy, opening with the 1999 election of James P. Hoffa and haunted by the archival ghost of his infamous father.
Strikers provide the doc’s most memorable moments. Cutting her young son’s hair, cursing out scabs, despairingly supporting her pregnant 15-year-old or bringing down the house as a speaker at a national convention, Hope Hampleman, loudmouth trucker and stalwart single mother of five, counterbalances the union’s largely male image. In Long Island, Mike Ferriolo explains how he voted three times against the union, until a friend and colleague was injured, then fired: He discovered what he believed to be inherent workers’ rights were, in fact, union-mandated options. Seg featuring Joe Reeves, an eloquent 26-year veteran of Overnite, compresses pic’s symbolic and emotional contradictions into one shot when he points to his uncle’s tombstone, on which is engraved a truck bearing the company’s logo.
Pic documents the price of fighting the strike for the company — a reported $100 million — and it becomes clear that keeping unions out is a matter of principle to Overnite, no matter the cost. A whole industry of security men, vans, trucks and stations mushrooms overnight, photographing strikers who themselves are keeping tabs on the company’s every move. When the union begins following trucks to their delivery points in order to picket, a phalanx of security cars is already there to cut them off.
To this day, the strike remains unresolved, leaving filmmakers with no dramatic closure. Director Johnson has an unfortunate tendency to veer toward the sentimental, such as footage of Santas and sad little boys in union halls at Christmas. Sacrificing overall structure for chronological fidelity, she’s unable to maintain the sharp focus Kopple brings to her own directorial choices. Still, given the sheer scope and logistical complexity of events, docu is an amazingly coherent report.
Technical credits are first-rate.