Will Netflix's 'Ice Road' solve carriers' biggest recruiting problems?

Screen Shot 2021 06 28 At 3 39 52 Pm Headshot
Updated Jul 4, 2021
Ice Road movie graphic
Promotional image for "Ice Road."

Here's a little lesson in media literacy: if a headline asks a yes or no question, the answer to that question is almost certainly "no."

So no, "The Ice Road," the one hour, 48 minute epic Netflix movie starring Liam Neeson and Laurence Fishburne will almost certainly not impact trucking the way that pilot-focused "Top Gun" shot U.S. Navy recruitment up 500% overnight in the 1980s. 

But just because "Ice Road" won't solve carriers' biggest recruiting problems, often referred to as a "driver shortage," in any one-fell-swoop sort of way, that doesn't mean it isn't worth closer examination. 

Following in the footsteps of the long run and well-documented popularity of History Channel's "Ice Road Truckers" reality-TV series, "Ice Road" is a movie from Netflix that stars A list actors to tell a story about moving urgently needed freight across frozen lakes in Canada. The film lionizes truckers who brave these high risk, high reward situations where their services mean life or death for their clients. 

[Related: 'Ice Road Truckers' star Lisa Kelly still tackles Alaska's challenging 'Haul Road']

Over the weekend, "Ice Road" hit No. 1 on Netflix, the film-streaming platform with 158 million paying subscribers and millions more mooching off of a friend or relative's account. "Bird Box," another Netflix movie that hit No. 1 on the service, ended up being seen by 80 million people. 

It's likely that a similar number of people could see "Ice Road" -- that's a huge number of potential impressions of the trucking world. 

Unfortunately, "Ice Road" hails from the fiction category. Like most Hollywood films that frequently dramatize situations, the movie contains some wildly over-the-top stunts and visual effects, which prompted some cynical takes from Overdrive readers. 

"Comedy of the year," one noted under a question about the flick that Senior Editor Todd Dills asked on Facebook. "Absolutely horrible," another said under an Overdrive Facebook post discussing the film.

“Couldn't get past the preview when they asked the mechanic to change the rocker arm sleeve," said owner-operator Brian Bucenell, "but he pulled the valve cover and took out a jake brake.”  

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We heard from drivers picking apart the "ridiculous" dynamics and bizarre continuity errors around just which trucks are which, but that wasn't all. The film did find at least some support.

"Great movie. The ice roads fascinate me. The job is already dangerous, tedious, and hard. Doing it on ice is another level," one reviewer wrote Overdrive

The flick could be a success in another way, too. Trucking experts have posited that success recruiting from a more diverse pool of drivers, including among women and people of color, could go a long way toward more effectively building the next generation of professional driving talent.

[Related: As trucking's tent grows, operators pursue 'education and ownership']

Liam Neeson stars alongside Fishburne, who plays a small fleet owner who puts together a team of drivers for an ill-fated "bull run" across frozen lakes. Amber Midthunder plays a Native American woman and a tough-as-nails driver whose vocal politics and critiques of "white people" probably clash with existing stereotypes about truckers.

But Midthunder's relentlessly strong and independent spirit may have just opened up millions of eyes to the trucking profession. Her character endures racist false allegations of murder and sticks to her guns while presenting as one of the film's most honorable and dependable agents. 

Marcus Thomas stars as Gurty, Neeson's veteran brother who suffers from aphasia and lacks the ability to communicate verbally. But the movie portrays Gurty as a talented diesel tech who understands his work perfectly. At a time when some fleets are innovating by reaching out to workers on the autism spectrum and at all levels of ability, "Ice Road" actually manages to strike the right chords.

Neeson plays what might stand in for a fairly typical trucker from a demographic standpoint (male, white), but he's portrayed as an endlessly capable and moral problem solver who never once backs down from a challenge. Overall, that's not a bad way to have one of Hollywood's leading men portray your profession. 

Trucking takes guts. It's hard work for independent people who can get the job done. Those characteristics aren't specific to any race, gender, ability level or creed. 

A major release from Netflix that paints truckers as heroes that go above and beyond for their fellow worker bodes well for the business overall. As the trucking demographic ages, and fleets need a new generation of younger drivers to step up, it's time to stop thinking "Smokey and the Bandit" and start thinking of new ways for a new generation to fall in love with trucking.

Netflix's producers might not know a Kenworth interior from a Volvo exterior (a big mistake in the film lots of truckers pointed out), but they know how to sell a story to Millennials and Generation Z.

With "Ice Road," Netflix has told the fundamental story that has driven truckers since before movies shot in color, and they told it in a way that includes the diverse group of identities found in modern trucking. Perhaps I set the bar low for Hollywood, but I'd call that a win. 

It's not everyday the top movie on the top streaming platform portrays truckers, so if you're in the business and you've seen the movie, drop us a comment or discuss the movie with your trucking peers and with us on Facebook here

[Related: Little-known movie showcased Overdrive founder's Hollywood, Nashville forays]