Roger & Me (1989)

9 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Michael Moore once said in an interview that his agenda with making his documentary films that expose big-time corporations and those associated with them is not unlike the scene in “The Wizard of Oz” in which the Wizard is exposed for being a frail man pulling strings. You know the scene—the one in which the mangy dog, Toto, pulled a curtain to reveal that the terrifying entity before our heroes was nothing more than one man putting on a big show. In a way, Moore is Toto, regular American citizens are Dorothy and her friends, and the corporations, politicians, etc. are nothing more than people pulling strings to inspire fear and power.

Whether you like him for making valid points and satirizing material while criticizing them at the same time or hate him for his fudging of the facts, speaking a little out of turn and very directly (remember his controversial Oscar acceptance speech?), or even his snarky personality, it’s hard to deny he’s a daring performance artist, putting himself in the story and showing us what he sees. Some of the ways he handles the material in his movies don’t work for me and I think he tries a little too hard getting his points across, but I can’t hate on the man for making entertaining films while at the same time delivering his points of view. I think “Bowling for Columbine” is a fascinating documentary and “Roger & Me,” the subject of this review, was a great way to get his name across to the general public.

“Roger & Me” was Moore’s debut feature, released in 1989. He originally funded the film by selling his house and hosting weekly bingo nights—anything to make a film about the hardships within Flint, Michigan. Moore was a native of Flint, the birthplace of General Motors. When GM closed many plants, laying off thousands of workers, the muckraking reporter Moore made this film as a response. But if you know Moore’s reputation today, you wouldn’t be surprised to find that this isn’t a bleak documentary about hardships. It’s not only cross and has a point to make—it’s also funny.

Moore narrates the story with his droll sarcasm and stars in the film himself, as he tries repeatedly to get an interview with Roger Smith, the chairman of GM. Every now and then, we’re treated with a sequence in which he thinks he’s going to walk into a building and meet Roger until he is immediately escorted out by security. Before he would even get a chance to get even closer than one floor toward Roger, he speaks with a spokesman from GM. When asked about the layoffs, the spokesman says they’re “necessary.” (Spoiler alert—he gets laid off by the end of the movie. Now there’s an up-yours I’m sure Moore was happy about.)

Moore goes everywhere in Flint. He encounters people with their own businesses (including a woman who chooses color coordinates for people and a woman selling rabbits for “pets or meat”), he meets several former GM workers now working at Taco Bell (some of whom are losing that job too), he looks into a poor attempt to turn the town into a tourist attraction, he goes to wealthy events, he visits an Amway party, he meets celebrities (including Pat Boone and Ronald Reagan) who try to cheer up locals, and he meets the most notable side character in the movie, a deputy sheriff who evicts several unemployed auto workers who couldn’t make their payments. And that’s only half of the material Moore works with in this movie, if you can believe it.

What is Moore trying to say with “Roger & Me?” He’s trying to put across the message that to big corporations, profits are more important than human lives, and something needs to change. This film is his angry way of showing that the best way he can to the public—actually addressing the problem.

Moore’s methods of telling the story of “Roger & Me” have been questionable (there was even a very unkind article from Film Comment about them). Some say it’s too good to be true (which I suppose is the criticism of most documentaries). Apparently, the amusement park was built before the closings and not in response to them; there were less layoffs than the film suggests; Roger Smith wasn’t reading “A Christmas Carol” at the same time of a crucial point; and so forth. Well…so what? Maybe the film was a little manipulative, took some cheap shots, and fudged some of the facts, but A) we all know that, B) Moore knows that, and C) the purpose is both entertain and enrage us. (Besides, anyone could figure out the “Christmas Carol” thing was a setup, just as much as we figure out Moore had staged beforehand his attempts to meet Smith. It would be too good to be true.) I still really like the film. I admire it for its balance of humor and pathos and the way Moore’s cynicism and skillful timing blends everything together. So what if Moore took some liberties? Not every documentary can be objective and even entirely factual. The film as a whole is emotionally true.

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