A film review by Craig J. Koban



RANK: # 9


15th Anniversary Retrospective Review

1989, R, 110 mins.

A documentary written and directed by Michael Moore

Long before Michael Moore was...well...Michael Moore, he was your typical, average American citizen. 

He was a family man, born in the town of Flint, Michigan, the world-renowned birthplace of General Motors, a proud member of the NRA, and had a good paying job as a magazine editor of a prestigious San Francisco magazine.  Yet, when he quickly lost his job over a creative difference in how the magazine should be run, he left San Francisco (a place he refers humorously to as one where people seem to sit around all day long and drink lattes). 

However, when he returns home to his beloved Flint, he discovers to his great horror that General Motors, a staple business in Flint for decades, had decided to close its Flint plant during a time of high profits and lay off some thirty thousand workers.  Moore, rightfully so, was really, really pissed off. 

His reaction was the documentary ROGER AND ME, one of the most important films of the 1980’s, and the modern Michael Moore that we all know, respect, loathe, criticize, and sometimes love was born.  It is out of the ashes of social upheaval that a modern subversive comic mind and one of the best satirists in contemporary cinema was given a voice and a presence on the American landscape.   

It’s amazing, looking back 15 years, at what a masterpiece of comedic and editorial journalism ROGER AND ME really is.  It was made during the heart of Reaganomics America, where new kinds of capitalist greed was spawned because of the fostering of an upper-class bureaucrat system where the rich got richer and the poor sure as hell got a lot poorer.  ROGER AN ME is a perversely funny dark comedy, to be sure, but out of the laughs (which often come at the expense of bitter irony), Moore manages to make some pointed comments and remarks about the modern American economic system. 

You get the impression, right away with the film, that Moore does something that would-be charlatans (like SUPER SIZE ME’s Morgan Spurlock) fail to do: He cares.  He cares about the situation his country (and home town) are in and actually probes the issues hard and wants to do things to make a difference.  He does not have the time to engage in inane and moronic stunts to get attention on himself;  rather, he looks for real answers to his country’s real dilemmas, and he himself realizes that there are no easy answers. 

ROGER AN ME may just be the most personal (and best) film of Moore’s career.  Yes, he has gained his most notoriety for his expose on guns and gun control in the 2002 documentary BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE (and I did indeed put it as the best film of 2002), and he later explored, to great satiric glee, the problematic presidency of George W. Bush in this year’s FAHRENHEIT 9/11 (a film that will be on my list of ten best of 2004).  Yet, in hindsight and reflection, ROGER AND ME is almost more of a subversive and bitterly angry film than any of those two, mainly because its issues hit closer to home for Moore.  Not to say that gun violence and the man that is running your country are not important areas of investigation, but when you're faced with a national political rhetoric of expansion and nation building when your town is left in the dust for dead by the decision of American capitalist greed and corruption, then you just know that Moore sees this as more pressing to him.  His 1989 documentary is the ultimate antithesis to the Horatio Alger myth of the American dream – it's an attempt to slam the US corporate mentality of the 80’s as an era of progress and retake the country away for this needless economic decapitation.   

Flint, in a way, metaphorically represents America.  It was the quintessential American town, one that was home to great industry and to General Motors, who had plants there and had its citizens make cars there for what seemed an eternity.  Flint was, as the earlier section of ROGER AND ME points out, a proud and spirited industrial town that was wrapped up in the post-War American economic dream.  Yet, Moore’s film reveals the American dream for what it truly is.  When Flint’s plants are shut down suddenly, thousands are left without work, and the town becomes one of the most social and economically devastated in the US,  Flint becomes a sort of post-economic apocalyptic wasteland.  To make matters worse, MONEY magazine proudly proclaimed that Flint was the very worst place in the US to live. 

C’mon, something sure as hell isn’t right here folks! 

Moore’s goal was to make a documentary that was not only hilarious, but he wanted to draw out these strange paradoxes that plagues modern American society.  The film was raised completely on his own dollar.  He raised money working endlessly at local Flint bingos, sold much of his possessions (even his very own home), and even managed to secure money from some celebrities like Ed Asner.  All of this was done in a proud effort on his part to show one thing – that the fiduciary greed of corporate America has destroyed his hometown, and he wants to do something about it. 

Looking at the painful visuals of the film is hard at times, where his town is shown as a once proud place reduced to blocks and blocks of desolate and run down housing, of raging unemployment, of enormous rat-infestation, of jails that are expanding due to the high crime rate, and a place where the overall expectations of the average citizen is as low as it gets. 

Some have criticized Moore as his films (including this one) for being manipulative and ostensibly one-sided.  Those ignorant people miss the point altogether.  The genius of Michael Moore is that he not only makes films that are funny and angry, but he tackles issues that matter and are told through his own personal voice.  Of course ROGER AND ME is a personal essay and editorial on his anger over the conditions of his hometown!  How, otherwise, could he not be objective?  Like Jonathon Swift, Moore is a political and social satirist, who uses his own unique blend of scathing and sarcastic commentary mixed with dark images and humor to make a stand.  We should applaud his abilities to dig into issues that other filmmakers would not ever touch.  Moore does not just love trouble, but he dives into headfirst with a sort of reckless irreverence that a court jester would envy. 

The whole crutch of the film is Moore’s persistent (and I do mean persistent!) attempts to manage an interview with the then CEO of General Motors, Roger Smith.  I think its safe to say that, even as early as minutes into the film, that Moore will definitely have a great deal of difficulty securing this interview.  Moore does not come across as the man that would be able to get quick access to a man as powerful as Smith.  He’s kind of an everyman, preferring flannel shirts, farm hats, and blue jeans over expensive suits.  In a way, it's amazing to think that Moore would ever be taken seriously by any GM representative, especially when he does not spruce up his image, nor does he have any credentials or business cards (in one of the film’s funnier moments, he tries to secure entry to Smith’s office by offering the security guard his Chucky Cheese discount card). 

However, all of this has a point – Moore is an everyman, and does not feel the need to be slavish to a slick and well-oiled corporate system where appearances count for everything.  If your going to stand for the everyman, you better not only walk the walk, but look it as well.  He is the poster boy for the working class stiff that truly feels like he and his fellow stiffs are getting royally screwed.  Yet, what his enemies don’t realize is that behind his meager façade is a man of determination, fiery wit, and an incredibly gifted ability for sophisticated debate.  Class anger, the ultimate catalyst, propels him. 

Well, Moore does not ever really get access to Smith.  The closet he does manage to get to him is in the form of a GM public relations man.  He’s the kind of well-dressed and mannered SOB you just want to hate, the kind that feels relatively comfortable in his very own overpaying job and manages to make the layoffs of the people of Flint seem meaningless (“Layoffs are necessary to make us profitable,” he dryly and unsympathetically states). 

Well, Moore is ultimately  denied his meeting with Smith, but that is  not to say that he did not try hard (he went to the GM head offices, Smith’s yacht club at Grosse Pointe, his athletic club in Detroit, and even manages to sneak into a shareholders meeting and is rudely shut down when he finally has a chance to speak).  It's astounding that Moore manages to not get demoralized by his lack of success.  He’s like a crazed and angered Energizer Bunny that refuses to die, and his frustration and inability to get to Smith only fuels his class rage.  For the rest of the film he demonstrates that, hell, if he can’t get to Smith, then he’ll get to everyone else! 

As a comedic documentary, ROGER AND ME reveals itself to be an equal opportunist social satire, and Moore leaves no one spared, regardless of class level or economic status.  In one depressing and despicable scene, he visits a nearby Flint woman who is forced to sell cute little bunnies…for either food or pets!  He even follows one shameless excuse for a party where the upper class elite of Flint has a Great Gatsby costumed party and the unemployed (mostly minorities) hire themselves out as human statues.  When asked about the current conditions of Flint, one of the party snobs says, “This is a great place, people need to get up in the morning and do something.”  

There is also another subversely funny scene that shows one industry that does manage to improve – the local jail system.  There seems to be the need for a new jail in flint (since people are killing each other and committing more crime, it seems) and the rich socialites again come out and hold a charity ball in the jail before it opens, who seem to take the whole thing with a lot of fun, not realizing that, hey, why do we need another jail anyway?  

If it's not the lower class or upper class,  Moore even manages to target celebrities  for his visual essay.  He runs into the future Miss America, Kaye Lani Rae Rafko, who gives oblivious and ignorance a whole new meaning.  He also manages to meet up with Pat Boone, the ultimate General Motors celebrity spokesman, who, at one sly and silly moment, mentions that the key to the people getting out of economic disparity may be selling Amway products.  He even manages to cover a trip by former President Reagan to a pizza supper in Flint, who conveniently tells everyone there to pick himself or herself up when he subtly leaves without picking up his tab. 

Two of the most disturbing elements of the film occupy an insane idea for constructing a new Amusement Park in Flint and the local Sheriff, who has the most secure job in the town.  It seems that some stupid civic boosters and PR men decide to construct a new amusement park dubbed Auto World in a vain effort to promote tourism in Flint.  It's one of those shameful spending of taxpayers dollars, and has one tasteless feature of a robot singing “Me and my buddy” alongside a human carmaker.  Well, the amusement park goes belly up, maybe because no one really has the money to go. 

The other moments show the local Sheriff who takes great pride, but no apparent pleasure, by spending his days evicting people from their homes by the dozens.  He has the most prolific and safe job in the town.  In one of the film’s more sad moments, Moore juxtaposes Smith addressing a GM Christmas Party while the sheriff evicts a family and even tosses their Christmas tree on to the front yard and street.  Moore’s manipulation is just that – he wants us to become as angry as he is. 

ROGER AN ME remains, 15 years after its release, to be one of the best films of the 80’s.  It’s really a tireless expose on Moore’s part to explain and shed light on some of the glaring contradictions that permeate American society.  Businesses, to be sure, are here to make money, but Moore wisely points out that, dammit, how many billions are enough when it comes to making more while sacrificing thousands of lives in the process, the lives that made the very businesses thrive in the first place?  Why, after years of billion dollar profits, would a huge company close its American doors to its factories, pack up, and head to Mexico? 

Well, Moore lashes out at this by showing the insanity of the pragmatism of these big businesses, which make all sorts of amoral points to  try to convey optimism to the people who are suffering while really doing nothing about it.  The GM spokesman says GM closed down plants for the economic well being of the company, but would never, ever fess up to saying that it’s an effort to make more money because Mexican labor is cheaper.  That’s what ROGER AND ME is about; it's a personal revenge picture that screams out “shame on you” or “screw this” to that type of meaningless rhetoric.  Moore may not have enacted any real change, but at least he made personal sacrifices to give credence to these serious issues.  No more is this apparent than in a montage, as ironic and sad as any I’ve seen in a film, where Moore shows endless blocks of homes run down and deserted while The Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It be Nice” swells on the soundtrack. 

How ironic, and painful, indeed.


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