GUNG HO, 1986
Directed by Ron Howard
Starring: Michael Keaton, Mimi Rogers, Gedde Watanabe, George Wendt, John Turturro, Sô Yamamura
Review by Brent Randall
Gung Ho explores the similarities and differences between the American and Japanese cultures when a Japanese car manufacturer comes to America to revive a car plant in Pennsylvania.
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Starring Michael Keaton as Hunt Stevenson, the movie opens with showing the doldrums of the town of Hadleyville, Pennsylvania. Hunt is the former foreman of the currently closed Hassan Motor’s plant that was the economic hub of Hadleyville. Hunt’s girlfriend, Audrey (Mimi Rogers) is picking him up to drive him to the airport, where he is on his way to Japan. Hunt’s mission is to persuade the Japanese executives at Hassan Motors to come to Hadleyville and reopen the Hassan plant there. His nervousness is quickly seen when Hunt puts his suitcases in Audrey’s trunk, and then proceeds to put his garbage too. This kind of humor, which Keaton pulls off so well, is seen throughout this movie (and many other Michael Keaton films as well), and it is this kind of humor that gives the viewer a much needed break from the difficulties facing Hadleyville. As the car progresses towards the airport, we quickly see through the various closed businesses that Hadleyville is struggling, and we see how important the Hassan Motors plant is to the success of other surrounding businesses. Hunt is fully aware of the importance of his mission, and knows that without the plant reopening, the town is likely to evaporate.
Hunt arrives in Japan and his struggles are illustrated through a variety of hilarious scenes showing Hunt trying to get acclimated with the Japanese culture. He finally arrives at Hassan motors and enters the executive board room. Upon giving his presentation to these executives, the owner and other members of the board seem completely uninterested in the jokes and humor Hunt uses to lighten the mood of the room. They also seem completely anything but impressed with Hadleyville, Hunt, or the prospect of coming to America to open the plant. After what seems like an unsuccessful attempt to woo the Hassan executives, Hunt returns to America. Audrey picks him up from the airport and asks him how the meeting went. Hunt reminds Audrey of the time when he first met her father, and how her father came after him with a power sander. Audrey says she remembers, and Hunt tells her that the meeting did not go quite that well. Once again, the quick witted humor Keaton employs helps illustrate beautifully the details of the meeting with the Japanese.
Hunt assumes the meeting was a failure and begins searching for other jobs all across the country. However, much to his surprise, he is informed from a friend that the Japanese will be coming to reopen the plant. Hunt and his fellow employees are estatic about the opportunity. The Japanese executives arrive in Hadleyville, and Hunt meets with them at the Hassan Motors plant. From this initial meeting, Hunt is given the job of leading the American workers and a raise in pay. Hunt is excited about the opportunity, but we also can already that the Japanese view of how the plant should run is quite different than that of Hunt’s view. For example, Hunt assumes the plant will actually open once all the structures are back in place, but the Japanese remain skeptical. We know by this pivotal meeting, the differences in work ethic, culture, and general ideas regarding business will play heavily in the success or failure of the plant.
Fortunately, for everyone involved, the plant does open, and the American workers are able to go back to work. It seems as if Hadleyville has been saved, but these successes may be short lived. From day one, the Japanese and American workers begin butting heads. In a pivotal scene, we as viewers see how their differences are vast by their approach to work. The Japanese workers believe in starting each day with morning exercises and taking a team approach to running the company, regardless of individual gains, and the Americans are much more individualistic, and are reluctant to even perform the exercises, much less take a team approach. As the days and weeks progress, these difference begin causing significant friction between the two cultures and threatens the future of the plant, and the way these two groups of people work through these differences will determine whether or not this plant, and more importantly, this town, will survive.
Gung Ho does a wonderful job illustrating the differences between cultures and how one must embrace differences and use these differences in order to achieve success. When I taught school, I used this movie to illustrate the differences of collectivism (a teamwork approach) to individualism (individualistic approach) in the workplace, and how these varying viewpoints can truly alter the way one views a working enviroment. These two schools of theory constantly show up in various aspects of this film and drive the way the Japanese and Americans think. This point is seen best when the Americans play the Japanese in a softball game. The Japanese show up in uniforms, warm up as a team, and play team ball by bunting and moving runners over, etc. The Americans, on the other hand, all are wearing different uniforms and trying to hit the ball as far as they possibly can. Niether way is right or wrong, it simply is a different philosophy, and it will take both sides working towards a common goal as opposed to working against each other to achieve success. Yes, Gung Ho is a hilarious movie if you like quick wit humor, and yes, Michael Keaton is fabulous, but it also dives deeper into how cultural differences can truly cause rifts between people. These differences, if we allow them to, can create gaps so large, that even the Grand Canyon would fail in comparison. We learn that different is not either right or wrong, it is simply different. Learning to embrace these differences can be difficult, but it can be accomplished. By embracing differences instead of critiquing them, great success can be achieved. Gung Ho shows us how we can do just that, and by doing so, how much more successful we can be when we choose to accept different viewpoints as opposed to simply rejecting them without just cause.