Jim Klein has made a number of important documentaries, at least two of which are canonical: Union Maids (1976) and Seeing Red (1983) Both films, made with Julia Reichert, are histories of leftist organizing structured around interviews with people who were directly involved with it. Klein and Reichert also started New Day Films in the 1970s, a distribution cooperative with many social issue films, including Taken for a Ride. This film, directed by Jim Klein, with Martha Olsen as researcher, is [End Page 142] a very different documentary than the two mentioned above, perhaps less weighty as a historical document, but also more interested in intervening in specific public policies and trends in contemporary American life. The documentary works like an investigative report on a set of social problems and their causes. The problems covered are fairly recognizable ones: our over-reliance on cars and the failures of public transportation to meet the needs of people. Taken for a Ride identifies the historical causes for these problems in General Motors' projects to shape American life around its interests. This is a provocative, important history, which is competently argued, with good evidence and archival material, some of which is available as documents on the DVD. An update would be helpful, however, since it was made in 1996. Most notably, G. M. is obviously no longer the leviathan described by Bradford Snell at the beginning of the documentary. Taken for a Ride is still relevant, however, for its historical account and in its central concerns on infrastructure and how business interests shape public policy.
Taken for a Ride could be divided into two parts. The first is about G. M.'s role in the 1930s and 1940s dismantling of streetcars. It closely follows the argument, famously made by Bradford Snell to Congress in 1974, that G. M. conspired with National City Lines, a bus company under its control, to take over streetcar systems and run them into the ground, to then replace them with buses. Following Snell, Taken further argues that this motorization was intended to push more people into driving cars, since buses were a poor substitute for the streetcars. The second part tells the history of how the highway lobby, organized by G. M., pushed forward policies to build highways and freeways. It argues persuasively that these projects were not always in the nation's interests and, in fact, were often detrimental to city life. It includes archival footage and interviews showing how community activists and local governments fought the construction of freeways through their cities. It also later reports that cities have won the ability to use federal highway money to improve public transportation. The documentary ends anxiously, showing the failure of many city systems to serve the people who need them. The failure of the car utopia, an ideology ironically shown in clips from mid-century commercials for cars and in support of highway legislation, is clearly asserted.
Taken for a Ride takes up a very interesting history and an important topic and deals with it well. It is surprising, though, that Bradford Snell largely figures as an expert, since he was directly engaged in the history, as the person who first made the links between G. M. and National City Lines. Allowing more of his story could have only strengthened the film. Also, the use of voices to dramatize documents, rather than working neatly to communicate them, at times draws attention to the strategy in unfortunate ways.
The on-camera interviews, not with experts, but with individuals who lived through and are living with the effects of the dismantling of urban [End Page 143] public transportation, are the most engaging parts of the documentary. Especially effective are the interviews with former streetcar operators, with people who fought against the freeways, and with those struggling with the current poor conditions of public transportation in many cities. Streetcar operators and city dwellers movingly describe their sadness at seeing the streetcar lines dismantled and services gutted due to the bottom-line thinking of...