A couple years ago, a blizzard hit Denver right before the holidays, shutting down I-25—the only major artery that runs through my middle-of-nowhere hometown– for days. Within no time at all, the grocery store was a post-apocalyptic battlefield of frenzied customers screaming at each other and wrestling for the last slightly rotted onion or wilted head of lettuce left on the empty shelves. When the highway finally opened, people jumped up from their tinny, makeshift dinners and cheered as the semis rolled into town. Barring a random occurrence that makes us notice their presence, truckers are rarely thought about at all by most people, other than as an annoyance as we whip through traffic.
Unless you are director Doug Pray. Hanging around truckstops with his screenwriter and assistant in tow, Pray tags along with whomever will let him in his or her truck. The result is “Big Rig,” a compilation of interviews taken on the road as the filmmakers wind their way across America. The truckers are eager to share, granting the visitors access to the private worlds of their cabs. Trucking is not an easy job, and almost across the board, some sort of hardship has drawn these people to the profession. It becomes clear that rigs are the small piece of the universe under their control, and the road is an escape from the 9 to 5 of mainstream society. It also becomes clear that “normal” society, which is usually dismissive of truckers, has no idea how dependent it is on the people who transport its goods all over the country. Pray has an obvious admiration and respect for this subculture, which he effectively humanizes.
The drawback to the documentary is that while the characters we meet are engaging and their stories compelling, we’re given too many of them. After emotionally investing in the first characters we meet, we kind of lose track of them as others abruptly drift in and out of the narrative. Moreover, the very serious dangers associated with the trucking industry (read: violence, drugs, prostitution) are given the gloss over in favor of a sunnier presentation.
However, the film achieves what it sets out to do: it draws to the forefront an underappreciated workforce, introducing to us people well worth knowing while also showing us the vast beauty of America, a sight that many of us are too busy talking on cell phones and changing lanes to notice.