From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Roger & Me (1989)
After watching Michael Moore’s latest (and last?) film, Capitalism: A Love Story (read my review here), I started thinking about his previous movies. Despite my enjoyment of his work, I realized that I’d never actually seen his very first film: Roger & Me.
Released in 1989 (though Mr. Moore was working on the film for several years prior to that), Roger & Me is an unflinching look at the devastating effect that the shutdown of several General Motors factories (eventually resulting in the firing of approx. 80,000 workers) had on Moore’s home-town of Flint, Michigan.
As Mr. Moore admits on the DVD’s commentary track, he not only had never made a movie before Roger & Me, but he knew very little about what went into making movies. But he (and a small team of partners) taught themselves everything they needed to know (about filming, sound, editing, etc.) over the course of assembling their film. This gives Roger & Me a raw, unpolished, feel which, to my mind, wound up working in Mr. Moore’s favor in enhancing the film’s effectiveness. This isn’t a slick-looking documentary. This feels like a film put together by a bunch of average folks, trying to address a situation that they felt passionately about. That passion is another key to the film’s strength.
Right from the beginning, Mr. Moore is a major (perhaps THE major) character in his film. Roger & Me opens with a montage of Mr. Moore’s home-movies, as he introduces himself in voice-over and describes his early years growing up in Flint. Mr. Moore’s on-screen involvement in his films has by now grown tiresome to some, but here his presence helps ground the film as a whole. Moore grew up in Flint, his father (and, it turns out, many other members of his extended family) worked for GM. At one point in the film, following a sheriff’s deputy evicting people from their homes who couldn’t pay their rent after having been laid off by GM, Moore discovers that one of the young men being evicted is someone he went to high school with. This is a personal story for Mr. Moore, about HIS community, and his anger and frustration at the way GM abandoned Flint underline every frame of the film. This lends the over-all film a gravity that a more polished but less-personal film would have lacked, I think.
As always, it can be hard to separate a discussion of one of Mr. Moore’s films from a discussion of his politics. The central question of what sort of responsibility a corporation has to its employees (and the communities in which the corporation grew prosperous) is a thorny one, and perhaps not so simplistic as it is presented here. Still, Moore’s key point, that GM shut down its plants in Flint (throwing tens of thousands of lives into turmoil and devastating Flint) DESPITE THEIR BRINGING IN RECORD PROFITS DURING THOSE YEARS is a hard one to argue against, and Mr. Moore spends much of his film showing us in great detail how hard so many families of Flint had it when the company pulled up stakes.
Mr. Moore has drawn some criticism, over the years, not just for his liberal leanings but also for some of his filmmaking techniques. In 2006, the film Manufacturing Dissent (which I have not seen) accused Moore of dishonesty in the making of Roger & Me. While it does seem that Moore played things a bit fast and loose in his editing of the footage (the eviction scenes intercut at the climax of the film with GM chairman Roger Smith’s cheery Christmas message did not actually take place at the same day), I can’t say that I get terribly worked up about those sorts of editing games. (In that specific example, does it matter if the two events did not actually happen simultaneously? Does that in any way undercut Mr. Moore’s point about General Motors’ uncaring attitude towards the effect of their plant closings on tens of thousands of American workers? Not to me.)
Roger & Me is a tough film to watch (and not just for the did-I-really-just-see-that graphic scene in which a former GM worker, reduced to selling rabbits for meat, kills and skins a rabbit before our eyes). In today’s tough economic climate, the film is more relevant than ever. Whether you agree with Mr. Moore or disagree with him, back in 1989 he was clearly already wrestling with some of the key issues that face our Democratic and Capitalistic society as we move forward into the twenty-first century. Are those two ideas compatible? What sort of nation do we aspire to be? What is stopping us from getting there?