#370) Roger & Me (1989)

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#370) Roger & Me (1989)

OR “Flint Condition”

Directed & Written by Michael Moore

Class of 2013

The Plot: Journalist Michael Moore returns to his hometown of Flint, Michigan in 1986, just as the town’s General Motors plant announces a seismic number of layoffs. 30,000 employees find themselves out of work, despite General Motors continuing to turn a profit. Moore chronicles Flint’s citizens as they grapple with a downward-spiraling economy. Simultaneously, Moore attempts to contact GM Chairman/CEO Roger B. Smith and hold him accountable for the devastation his “business solutions” have caused.

Why It Matters: The NFR praises Moore’s “brazen, in-your-face style” of “take-no-prisoners, advocacy documentary filmmaking”, and mentions the film’s continued relevancy.

But Does It Really?: Like many of Moore’s documentaries, “Roger & Me” is flashy and biased, but packs more punches in 95 minutes than most quote-unquote serious films.  “Roger & Me” starts as an investigation and ends with Moore exposing the toll capitalism takes on the working class, as well as the hypocrisy of the American dream. It is downright infuriating how relevant “Roger & Me” and its reportage of class warfare has remained 30 years later. Like him or hate him, Michael Moore and his effective documentaries have earned their place in the National Film Registry.

Everybody Gets One: Michael Moore sums up his youth pretty succinctly in the film’s opening minutes. The unnamed San Francisco magazine Moore worked for was “Mother Jones”, which he successfully sued for wrongful termination. Moore used the money from the settlement to partially fund “Roger & Me”. A first time filmmaker, Moore learned the technical aspects of the movies from “Atomic Café” director (and one of this film’s cinematographers) Kevin Rafferty.

Seriously, Oscars?: “Roger & Me” won a bevy of critics awards, but was famously snubbed for the Best Documentary Oscar. This movie was the first of many acclaimed documentaries to be shutout of the Oscars, culminating with “Hoop Dreams” and an investigation into how the Documentary branch selects the nominees. While some filmmakers were outraged by the exclusion of “Roger & Me”, an anonymous Academy member informed the L.A. Times that voters perceived the film as “dishonest and unfair to its subjects.”

Other notes

  • Moore does an excellent job of utilizing archival footage to create his desired viewpoint. MSTies will be quick to recognize the 1956 GM short “Design for Dreaming” during the film’s opening.
  • The “Tart to Tart” cafe highlighted in the San Francisco montage is right by my apartment. It looks exactly the same!
  • I love me some ironic Beach Boys music. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” is featured over footage of Flint’s poverty-stricken communities.
  • Despite Michael Moore’s claim, the film is not presented in complete chronological order. Filming occurred from 1987 to 1989, while many of Flint’s attempts to boost tourism had started as early as 1984, before the GM layoffs. But as Roger Ebert correctly points out, an accurate timeline is not this film’s priority.
  • As depicted in the film, President Ronald Reagan visited Flint after the layoffs to address a group of former GM employees. His advice: seek job opportunities in other states. So much for making America great again. (Look it up; it was his campaign slogan first).
  • The Gatsby party (complete with living statues) is your first peek at the class struggle in Flint. That being said, one of the partygoers – Flint lawyer Larry Stecco – successfully sued Michael Moore for “false light invasion of privacy”.
  • Flint native/“Newlywed Game” host Bob Eubanks does not come off looking great in this. Adding insult to injury, Moore includes an outtake of Eubanks telling an off-color joke. Eubanks thought the camera was off when he told that joke, and later apologized for his comments.
  • One of Moore’s strengths as a filmmaker is finding situations with the most dramatic impact. Of course a Miss America contestant isn’t going to have a strong opinion on a car manufacturer’s layoffs, but Moore knows he can get a revealing answer if he presses the issue.
  • Between this and “Harvey Milk”, Anita Bryant is documentary films’ go-to antagonist. She and GM celebrity spokesperson Pat Boone give the same tired spiel about Flint pulling itself up by its bootstraps. Like Miss America, these two are out of their element, but it does highlight the shallowness of celebrity.
  • The tourism section of this film is excruciating. Everyone’s heart is in the right place, but making Flint a tourist destination was never going to work. On the plus side, the AutoWorld theme park is a “Defunctland” episode waiting to happen.
  • Unsurprisingly, the film gets darker as it progresses. In quick succession we get a scene where a rabbit is murdered and skinned on-camera, followed by footage of the Flint police shooting a mentally ill African-American man. Both are unsettling, haunting images.
  • This film kept reminding me of the “This is Fine” meme, as well as the line from “1776” about how Americans “would rather protect the possibility of being rich than face the reality of being poor.” I feel these sum up everything this movie is trying to convey in a nutshell.
  • This is the saddest movie on my “Die Hard” Not-Christmas list. The Singing Dogs’ cover of “Jingle Bells” does not help.
  • Some critics complained about the film’s manipulative editing, particularly in the final scene where a woman and her family are evicted while Roger Smith is giving his annual Christmas address. But listen closely: Moore says he filmed them on separate days during his confrontation with Smith.
  • Shoutout to the movie’s legal team. Where’s their Oscar?

Legacy

  • Upon its release, “Roger & Me” was the highest-grossing documentary ever. As per Moore’s contract with distributor Warner Bros., portions of the film’s profits went to Flint homeless shelters, the families whose evictions are in the movie, and various charities and organizations. Despite all this, Moore later called the film a failure because it didn’t inspire major improvements to Flint.
  • While General Motors publically decried “Roger & Me”, the film was allegedly quite popular with GM employees who became increasingly disillusioned with Roger Smith’s leadership. Smith voluntarily resigned from GM in 1990, less than a year after the film’s release.
  • Modern sources list the number of General Motors employees in Flint between 5000 and 7000, less than 1 percent of its early 1980s figures.
  • Michael Moore initially vetoed any TV airings of “Roger & Me”, but relented in 1992 when it was aired on PBS. The broadcast included Moore’s follow-up/epilogue, “Pets or Meat: The Return to Flint”.
  • You would have to be living under a very conservative rock to be unaware of Michael Moore’s oeuvre of uber-liberal documentaries. Highlights include the Oscar-winning “Bowling for Columbine” and the controversial-even-by-Moore’s-standards “Fahrenheit 9/11”. Flint and its ongoing set of problems are a recurring theme throughout Moore’s films.
  • And finally, a reminder that as of this writing, Flint, Michigan is still without reliably clean drinking water. It’s getting better, but there’s still a long way to go.

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