Film Review: Roger & Me (1989)

(source: tmdb.org)

Documentaries today make some of the most popular and the most talked about content on Netflix and other streaming services. Decades ago, it wasn’t the case and it was inconceivable that a film maker could become international celebrity on the account of making documentaries. Person who changed that was Michael Moore and the process started with his 1989 debut film Roger & Me.

Before dabbling into films Moore used to be journalist and for his project he applied principle very much like “write what you know”. Roger & Me deals with Moore’s native city of Flint, Michigan, which is known as the birthplace of General Motors (GM), company which for the most part of 20th Century used to be the biggest automobile producer in the world. It is also known for famous 1936 sit-down strike which established United Auto Workers (UAW) as one of the most powerful labour unions. The two organisations created symbiotic relationship during which company continued to thrive while at the same time allowing tens of thousands of workers to have decent wages and enjoy middle-class living standards. Moore grew up in family of GM employees, which were proud of their jobs and city. Everything began to change in 1980s after Roger B. Smith became CEO of GM. Faced with increased competition from Asian car manufacturers, Smith decided to take extreme measures in order to increase profit which included closing of auto plants in Michigan and their relocation to Mexico and other areas with cheap or non-unionised labour. In Flint, city of 150,000 inhabitants, this led to 30,000 people losing their jobs. Moore’s film deals with devastating aftermath of such policies that led to mass unemployment, poverty, crime and collapse of public services. Moore, often in semi-humorous way, chronicles how some of the ordinary people try to survive under such conditions, pathetic attempts of public officials to turn around situation with harebrained construction projects, while at the same time how his attempts to get Roger Smith to give him interview get stonewalled by company’s security and PR people.

Moore made film with extremely limited budget, gathered by running bingo games and using damages won in a lawsuit against his former employers in Mother Jones magazine. By his own admission, he didn’t have a clue about film making and had to rely on his cinematographer Kevin Rafferty to teach him the ropes during production. Result of this efforts was nevertheless quite impressive and Roger & Me represents first and very effective use of formula that would characterise most of Moore’s documentary work – combination of passionate social commentary, guerilla film making stunts and humour that makes the films’ grim subjects easier to digest for the audience. In case of this film Moore dealt with something that not only irked him personally – seeing his home city decline and his friends and acquaintances having their lives destroyed because of corporate greed – but also exposed the dark underbelly of Reagan’s America and the rising chasm between Haves and Have Nots. Moore depicts that by making sharp contrast between the careefree lives of city’s rich elite that indulges in Great Gatsby parties and city’s poor forced to make ends meet in various ingenious and often unpleasant ways. The most memorable character, however, is Fred Ross, former GM employee who found much steadier and secure job as sheriff’s deputy in charge of evictions, during which he meets his former friends and colleagues. In its powerful finale, Moore edits Roger Smith’s Christmas address during corporate event into the scene of family being thrown out of home at Christmas Eve.

Roger & Me managed to win distribution by Warner Bros. and during its theatrical run had rather impressive box office, as well as rave reviews by most critics. Like most of Moore’s films, it had its share of detractors and some of their arguments look valid even today. While Moore’s approach is effective as propaganda, it oversimplifies complex issues, often attributing all the world’s ills to a single person – Roger B. Smith in this film or George W. Bush in Fahrenheit 9/11. Decline of American industrial heartland wasn’t anything particular new or sudden; it was a process that was going on for years and creeping into public sentiment, even finding way to influence mainstream Hollywood blockbusters like Beverly Hills Cop. Moore didn’t reveal anything particularly new and his film, more importantly, didn’t offer any solutions to the problem. Roger & Me never bothers to explain what could have GM done differently or why UAW failed to protect the livelihoods of their members. Furthermore, like in some of his later films, Moore uses creative editing and other tricks to make things look worse than they were in real life, allowing himself to be accused for ideological manipulation. Roger & Me is nevertheless entertaining and valuable film that documents important historical period, although it could be quite depressing for the viewers who now know that things in Flint, America and the rest of the world became much worse in next decades.

RATING: 6/10 (++)

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