There’s an inherent danger in nostalgia. As we’ve witnessed over the past four years, slogans about some mythical better time in America can come loaded with prejudice. Those good ol’ days weren’t all that great for everyone.
But there are some anachronistic artifacts that are worth … if not celebrating, then at least marveling at, like curios on a shelf. Hulu’s quirky new mockumentary John Bronco unearths an oldie but a goody: the archetype of the masculine pitchman, that kind of rough-hewn all-American male for whom a thick mustache, shearling vest, and lit Marlboro red were the holy trinity.
Directed by Jake Szymanski, the 39-minute film relies on talking-head interviews and sepia-tinted “archival” footage to fabricate a backstory for its titular hero, played to the shit-kickin’ hilt by Walton Goggins — an actor with just the type of “I think I know that guy” face to make you wonder if Bronco, a rodeo rider, was a real person.
He wasn’t, of course, but John Bronco — and particularly Goggins’ all-in performance — does a fine job of trying to convince you otherwise. Enlisted to drive Ford’s prototype SUV in the 1966 running of the Baja 500, John proves a natural behind the wheel and wins the off-road race, the public’s heart, and, pivotally, the attention of the Ford Motor Company. Both the Ford Bronco and a pitchman’s career are born.
In between a montage of macho commercials, Bronco hams it up on Johnny Carson and Laugh-In. His animated likeness appears on a breakfast cereal and in a video game. He even scores a hit song with the tie-in jingle “Mama Named Me Bronco.” Goggins, who chews the scenery in HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones as the singing-and-dancing Baby Billy, does his own crooning here too.
But fame isn’t without its pitfalls, and Bronco runs afoul of both Frisbees (“I don’t like things coming at my face”) and one-pass-wonder QB Doug Flutie. His romance with Bo Derek, playing herself, goes south too, and, just as he’s about to race the Baja 500 one more time, Bronco unceremoniously learns from a sportscaster that Ford is discontinuing his namesake ride. “That’s a Chevy move” says a judgmental Ford archivist. “That’s some GM shit.”
It’s a funny line, delivered by Goggins’ Gemstones castmate Tim Baltz, but it underscores the confusion about just what John Bronco wants to be. Is it a film or is it a guerrilla ad campaign for the relaunched Ford Bronco? The filmmakers admit they received Ford’s permission to tell their tall tale and, in fairness, there’s no grand unveiling of the 2021 Bronco in the documentary. But it’s hard to completely buy into the gag when you’re aware that Big Auto is watching too.
Overlong interviews with Tim Meadows, as Bronco’s manager, and real-life pitchmen Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the fast-talking Micro Machines guy sputter. But the magnetism of Goggins keeps this vehicle from running out of gas. “What’s the fun of being a Bronco if you can’t share it?” he asks in one commercial, leaning against a tree in cutoff jeans and cowboy boots as if he just came from a key party. In another, he drawls, “Be an America. Be a Bronco.”
The best joke is a pisser of a “lost ad” for a certain white SUV that chauffeured another larger-than-life pitchman who fell from grace. And maybe that’s the takeaway — that anyone can become a TV star, or even president, if they have good luck, greater charisma, and unfailing self-confidence. As John Bronco boasts in one particularly swaggering ad: “I’m a Bronco. Are you?”