Michael Moore, meet Steve Talbot and Robert Krulwich. What Moore did to General Motors in micro scale in his devastatingly funny "Roger & Me," producer Talbot and host-narrator Krulwich do in macro in the 90-minute "Frontline" and Center for Investigative Reporting co-production, "The Heartbeat of America" (tonight at 9 on KCET-TV Channel 28 and KPBS-TV Channel 15, 8 p.m. on KVCR-TV Channel 24).
Sometimes, this "Frontline" season opener is too macro for its own good.
The story is framed around the Clinton Administration's effort to cajole the Detroit auto makers to make that Holy Grail of progressive industrialism: "the clean car." In this, GM is no different from Ford or Chrysler in its resistance to set up an experimental production line to build a car that delivers 80 miles per gallon--especially when profits are down.
Indeed, GM just reported 1993 losses of more than $2 billion, blaming them on labor costs. This latest grim statistic didn't make it into "Heartbeat," but it typifies what the report shows. Once the paragon of American corporate management and the virtual definer of the American car, GM became muscle-bound in a bureaucratic management system that disallowed criticism. The picture that emerges here is of a capitalist powerhouse that turned into a Soviet-style empire builder, with lots of divisions and acquisitions, but with little regard for what the customers and work force had to say.
Like Moore, Talbot and Krulwich pursue but never get their interviews with the top GM brass. Unlike Moore, they do more than champion the working stiff who builds these cars. They show that it isn't only activist auto workers such as Al Scutchfield who are alienated from GM's unprofitable decisions but also inventor-entrepreneurs such as Al Coconni, who quit GM's quashed electric car division in order to build his own gas-free car.
All Coconni lacks, it seems, is capitalization. All GM lacks is a sense of the future. But "Heartbeat" never manages a full accounting of how GM got to its sorry state. It never explores, for instance, business guru W. Edwards Deming's analysis of GM as the model of stodgy, inflexible management. It never appraises how Ford and Chrysler did U-turns and make cars people want to buy. The ever-murky "GM culture" remains as mysterious as ever.