Roger And Me

1989, Movie, R, 87 mins

Review

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In the 1980s, under the leadership of chairman Roger Smith, General Motors closed down 11 of its plants in Flint, Michigan, the company's birthplace. The shutdowns put 30,000 of the city's 150,000 residents out of work and dealt Flint a blow from which it may never recover: not only was GM the largest employer in town, it was practically the only one. GM wasn't losing money; it just wanted to make even more money by relocating some factories to Mexico, where labor is cheap and, even better, non-unionized.

ROGER & ME is a pointedly hilarious documentary about a subject that isn't remotely funny, the indifference of corporate America to the lives of its workers. First-time filmmaker Michael Moore shows a city ruined, not by lack of drive and hard work, but by simple corporate greed. He uses humor to keep the viewer involved in what could easily have been an unbearably depressing film.

ROGER & ME follows the attempts of Moore and his crew to obtain an on-camera interview with Roger Smith, and to get him to come to Flint to witness the devastation his cuts have caused. Perpetually dressed in working class uniform --baseball cap, parka and jeans--Moore is, of course, denied access to Smith everywhere he tracks him.

Via archival footage and old television footage, Moore contrasts Flint in its glory days of the 1950s with what it has become, a city ranked "the worst place to live in America" by Money magazine. Because the city can only afford to collect garbage twice a month, rats outnumber people 4 to 3. The only man in town with a steady job is Deputy Sheriff Fred Ross, who serves eviction notices on families behind in their rents. Other people look for ways to become self-supporting, like Amway distributors or the woman who raises rabbits and sells them for "pets or meat."

Collectively, the city of Flint struggles to reinvent its economy with a succession of increasingly ill-advised schemes. Despite the lack of any tourist industry, the city spends $13 million in tax funds to bring in a Hyatt Regency luxury hotel, which eventually goes bankrupt. Even worse is AutoWorld, a $100 million theme park paying tribute to the auto industry that closes for lack of business in six months.

And the rich and successful prove over and over again that they just don't get it. At a flashy "Great Gatsby"-style party, they hire the out-of-work to pose as "human statues." When the city builds a huge new jail to cope with the rise in crime, it's christened with a party where couples spend $100 to spend the night in a jail cell. On a campaign stop, Ronald Reagan advises the unemployed to look for jobs in Texas. Visiting celebrities Pat Boone, Bob Eubanks, Anita Bryant and Miss Michigan (on her way to the Miss America pageant) spout pompous, empty homilies about "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps."

At a GM Christmas party, Moore and his crew finally get close enough to Smith to ask him to visit Flint; he refuses. At the same time, Deputy Fred oversees a family being evicted from their home on Christmas Eve. The credits end with the note that ROGER & ME cannot be shown in the city of Flint--all the movie theaters have been closed.

The humor of ROGER & ME--and it must be said that this is a very funny movie--is largely absurdist: in an impossible situation, people behave impossibly. Some of it is also at the expense of Moore himself, whose wanders through the film pretending to be dim-witted to various GM functionaries. When one asks him for a business card, he looks through his wallet and finds only a "Chuck E. Cheese" discount card. It's funny, but it doesn't begin to fool the viewer: Moore is obviously a smart fellow who understands the Socratic method. He has the genial charm of the National Public Radio commentator he once was, but this is a movie made from a deep sense of outrage.

After ROGER & ME was released, Moore was attacked for shifting the chronology of some events shown in the film: Ronald Reagan's visit and the building of AutoWorld and the Hyatt Hotel all took place well in advance of the round of plant closings that open the film. While technically valid, such complaints miss the point. Reagan was clearly ignorant of the situation of average workers, and the Hyatt and AutoWorld fiascos were examples of monumental stupidity. ROGER & ME isn't a cold, polite sociological examination; it's a populist movie that sets out to engage and enrage people, and does so very well indeed. (Graphic violence, profanity.) leave a comment

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Roger And Me
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