Dirty Jobs’ Creator Mike Rowe Releases Historical Docudrama Just in Time for Independence Day

By Nancy Flory Published on June 25, 2024

Former Dirty Jobs host Mike Rowe, perhaps better known these days as an acerbic social commenter and tireless advocate of blue-collar tradesmen, has an inspiring new movie coming to theaters on June 27. Something to Stand For part documentary, part historical drama — shares the untold stories of several American heroes and the principles undergirding our nation’s founding. Recently, Rowe spoke with The Stream’s Nancy Flory about the film — both why he made it and what he hopes to pass down to younger generations through it.

The Stream: What sparked the idea of filming Something to Stand For?

Mike Rowe: Like most of my career, it was a combination of Forrest Gumpery and serendipity. I had been working on a podcast called The Way I Heard It, and still am. I started that about eight years ago. Basically, it started as a collection of stories that were written in the style of Paul Harvey.

I love the idea of learning something I didn’t know about somebody I did, but getting a chance to figure it out along the way. So it was a short-form podcast with a mix of history and mystery. I called it “Stories for the Curious Mind with a Short Attention Span,” and just started writing about some of my favorite people. And that podcast turned into a thing, and I wrote a few hundred stories for it. And then it turned into a book, and then it turned into a TV show. And then some smart guy said, “Hey, around an occasion, maybe Christmas or maybe the 4th of July, why don’t you get a couple of relevant stories together, and we’ll do a movie?” I thought it was a terrible idea, but then I thought about it some more, and then we started to adapt these stories for the big screen.

I thought, “Oh, wow, these actually look pretty good.” I thought Independence Day would be a great occasion to take nine of these stories, stitch them together with a field trip of sorts in my old Bronco, I drive to the Capitol, visit the monuments, visit the memorials, visit all of the traditional sites there in between these stories, which play out over the course of maybe 100, 110 minutes. I don’t know that there’s a word for what this is. It’s not a documentary because the recreations are very ambitious, but it’s not a narrative either, because the actors — there are 300 of them — don’t really talk. They’re all there bringing the stories to life that I tell from a stage in an empty theater. So it’s all kind of cut together in this really interesting mix of media.

But what comes out, I hope, is a love letter of sorts to the people who helped build the country and to the principles that most people today, even people on opposite sides of the aisle, can agree make us who we are: uniquely American.

True Freedom

True Freedom

TS: Why is it important to pass down these stories to the next generation?

MR: Many reasons, but I guess the first one is Santa Ana said, “Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Our history is a really important part of who we are, and so is our statuary. So are monuments, so are memorials. They’ve become targets as of late in a lot of different ways. I understand why people want to correct the past in many cases by erasing it. I don’t think that makes a whole lot of sense. But the project kind of came into focus when the world went upside down and people truly didn’t know how to think about the flag. They didn’t know how to think about our founding fathers. They couldn’t seem to separate the genius of certain men from their flaws, the virtue from the vice. I think that nuance is a really important thing for people to have. In fact, I think it’s really important to be skeptical of all kinds of claims. That’s why the podcast is called The Way I Heard It. I’m not claiming to be an expert, but I think it’s important for people to be critical of the country and to understand that we’re still a work in progress, that we were formed by imperfect people, and we’re never going to be a perfect union. The Constitution talks about a more perfect union, not a perfect union. So, I wanted to do the movie because, in spite of all our differences and the madness that seems to define every new headline with every passing day, there’s just no getting around the fact that we still have an awful lot to be proud of. We have a lot to be grateful for, and we have a lot to celebrate. Anybody who’s traveled the world and taken an honest assessment, in my opinion, of the good, the bad, and the ugly, and looked at the American experiment — warts and all — will still come to the conclusion that we’re not as bad as you may have been told.

TS: What does it mean to you to be part of this project?

MR: Well, first and foremost, it’s gratifying and it’s also humbling. I’m not an auteur. I’m not a movie maker. I really never had any aspirations. Maybe a while ago, early on in my career, I thought, “Oh boy, yeah, the big screen, that would be something.” There was a time when I thought I was going to be an actor or a singer, any number of things. But I got past all of that and wound up with the great good fortune to work in a medium and on shows that didn’t require second takes. That allowed me to show a really authentic, really honest look at work. That’s what Dirty Jobs was. The foundation I run today awards work-ethic scholarships to kids who want to learn a trade — plumbers and steam fitters and pipefitters and mechanics and heating and air conditioners, electricians, and so forth.

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I can’t tell you what a privilege that is to have given away $10 million or so and help train the next generation of workers. That is really what I wanted to do. And who I think I am. But I never totally got over the idea of making a movie of some kind. To have a chance to do that, and to have a chance to incorporate my personal beliefs into it through stories that I wrote for a podcast, and to see them get adapted to TV and then the big screen, it’s humbling.

And to have my dad still around! He’s 91. He was a history teacher. He instilled in me really early on that nobody wants a lecture. Nobody wants a sermon. Nobody wants to just sit there and be peppered with days and dates. “And then this happened, and then that happened.” I mean, maybe true historians do, but most of us want to hear a story. We want to be entertained. Then if they’re gracious enough as an audience to allow the filmmaker the permission to make a point, to conclude a thing, well then, okay, let’s make a point. Let’s conclude something, in this case. What is it we can all stand for together? What can we agree on?

It still makes us uniquely American. All those questions kind of hummed around when we evaluated the likelihood of doing this. Once we decided to do it, it happened fast. Two months ago, this was not a thing. Now it’s all together. The prints are in theaters, and it’ll be up and at ’em June 27th.

TS: What do you hope audiences will experience when they’re watching the film?

MR: I hope they’ll be reminded that gratitude is a choice. It’s not like your hair color or your skin color, or your eye color, or your blood type, or your star sign. Gratitude is like work ethic. It’s like attitude, really. We can choose to be a grateful nation. We can choose to be grateful individuals. The reason I think it’s smart to do that is not because we owe some sort of debt, although I believe we do, to people who have come and gone and done great things on our behalf. It’s because when we feel grateful, or when we open the door to allow some of that feeling to wash over us, it becomes very difficult to be bitter. It becomes very difficult to feel like a victim.

Impossible, in fact. It’s impossible to find a fundamentally grateful person who’s miserable. I hope that what people take from it — aside from being entertained, because the stories, modesty aside, are pretty entertaining — I hope they really think about what it took to do the things that allow us to live in a world where we can go online, reserve a movie ticket, and then go with our friends and sit there and have a movie experience. It’s a miracle of sorts.

TS: What did you learn while making this film?

MR: This will sound a little grand. I haven’t learned any new lessons in a while, but I keep learning the old ones over and over again. Making this movie, I was reminded that it doesn’t matter how specific your plan is or how specific your script is or how deliberate or intentional you want to be in the execution of your idea.

I was at the World War II Memorial just shooting a quick standup, getting from one story to the next. I was there with my crew and we were in a hurry, trying to get a lot of stuff done in one day. I saw an honor flight come in. A dozen old men, mostly in wheelchairs, their families were with them along with some volunteers. I said to my director, “You know what? Grab the camera guy for a minute. I just want to go talk to some of these people.” I mean, why not? I had a crew there, and in the end, if you’re making a movie, it’s kind of up to you as to where you point the camera. I ran to this guy, 91 years old. Andy Michael was his name, and he had never been to the memorial before. He’d been flown in from some part of the country. [He had served] in Korea, in the worst of it. But I met him in the World War II Memorial, and I knelt down next to him and we laughed and it turned out, we grew up not far apart from each other in Baltimore. We exchanged some stories and I just asked him what it meant to be here in front of that Wall of Stars, thinking about all of this.

He answered me honestly, and his answer’s in the movie. An old man looked me square in the face with tears running down his wrinkles, but smiling and saying, “It is just a remarkable feeling to be in a place where you can feel the gratitude of generations wash over you.” So, the lesson is, if you see a guy like Andy Michael over there while you’re over here trying to make your movie, you might be better off going over there — for a minute anyway, to see what the old fella has to say.

TS: I thought that was planned! It wasn’t?

MR: All I ever did on Dirty Jobs was unplanned, unscripted stuff. A movie is the opposite of that. Everything is planned and deliberate unless you say, “Wait, I don’t want to forget that lesson.” That’s what I learned making this movie — don’t forget the stuff you already know.

Watch the trailer here:

 

Nancy Flory, Ph.D., is a senior editor at The Stream. You can follow her @NancyFlory3, and follow The Stream @Streamdotorg.

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