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Emory is a Cincinatti steel worker like his father before him and for most of the 20th century the twin pillars of his family's existence have been the steel mill and the union. The mill, which once employed 45,000, has seen its numbers dwindle to 5,000 recently and now 1, as the plant just shut its doors, leaving a single security guard. At first, newly-unemployed Emory and his pals enjoy their independence, hanging out around town and carousing at their favorite bar, where they down "depth charges" with reckless abandon. They think the mill will reopen after listening to their union rep's optimistic spiel, but reality starts to sink in when they find themselves selling their personal vehicles in a struggle to put food on the table and stave off foreclosure of their homes. Emory's father - a dedicated union man - is sure the plant will reopen and recalls for his son all the short-lived closures during his own 35 years at the mill. Meanwhile, some of the unemployed men take demeaning make-work jobs or hop in their trucks and take off in a desperate search for employment.
Finally the union admits its helplessness, as Emory explains to his stubborn father that times have changed and that the mill won't ever open again. Emory tearfully asks "What did I do wrong?" as a lifetime of hard work and devotion to job, union, church and family have left him with nothing and nowhere to turn. He hits rock bottom when in a drunken rage he manhandles his young sons and knocks his wife to the floor. Tossed out of his own home and stinging from the plant manager's comments that he and his men didn't work hard enough to justify their substantial paychecks, Emory recruits the steel workers still left in town to do something that will demonstrate to all what they are capable of. Early in the morning they break into the mill, fire up the furnaces and work harder than they ever have in their lives, producing in one shift enough high-quality steel pipes to fill the loading docks from wall to wall, top to bottom - something the plant manager thought was impossible.
Arriving at the suddenly-reopened plant, the stupefied manager looks around him at the tremendous output that came from a single day's work, realizing that production like this could make the plant profitable again. The manager asks Emory: "Can you do this every day?" Emory is forced to nod "No" and the manager asks: "Then what were you trying to prove?" Emory explains that the workers' decades of hard work, honesty and devotion to their jobs had meaning and that by showing how much they could produce in one day "We just spit in your eye." Emory bids a tearful farewell to his wife and kids as he takes off with his buddies to look for work down south, promising to relocate the family when he finds it.
This is a powerful and honest treatment of the plight of American workers displaced by foreign competition and gives a realistic view of the costs they bear for the short-sightedness of concession-demanding unions and greedy plant owners who extracted every penny they could from their factories but never gave back by modernizing them. Peter Strauss as Emory, John Goodman as his best friend, Gary Cole as his college-boy brother, Pamela Reed as Emory's sympathetic wife and John Doucette as his dying father all turn in excellent performances in this fine picture.
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