Bill O’Reilly proudly mentions his upbringing in Levittown, N.Y., and for some reason I kept thinking of him — and other pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps advocates — watching “Hard Times: Lost on Long Island,” a devastating HBO documentary that premieres July 9.
Directed by Marc Levin and produced by Daphne Pinkerson, the simple 53-minute film looks at the longterm unemployed, telling their stories — and capturing their pain and struggles — with remarkable efficiency and economy.
What really makes “Hard Times” resonate is how well the filmmakers have chosen their subjects, people who seem very much like they could be your own friends and neighbors. And these are not the types we frequently envision freeloading off the government teat, but people for the most part who thought they were living the American dream — in a town that came to epitomize the suburbs — only to have a certain class of white-collar job disappear or get outsourced out from under them.
Beginning in 2010, the filmmakers follow various folks as they look for work, while dropping in details about their pasts — how they met their spouses, raised their kids — that make clear these are not people sitting around waiting for handouts. Most continue to actively seek jobs, while facing repeated rejection and dealing with the marital and personal stress unemployment can bring.
“It changes every facet of your life,” says Anne Strauss, a former PR professional, who later notes — given the toll on relationships and the differential in terms of sympathy — “Having cancer was easier than being unemployed.”
Broadcast news frequently struggles to capture the impact of the struggling economy on individuals — it’s tough to achieve any depth in two minutes on the nightly news — but “Hard Times” manages to connect the macro to the micro.
Politicians and pundits often paint a convenient portrait of the unemployed as being to blame for their own struggles, preaching a message of personal responsibility. Without dwelling on that aspect of the equation, “Hard Times” demonstrates it’s possible to have done everything right, seemingly, and still wind up among the statistics — wondering what happened to all those best-laid plans.