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Grade: A-Roger and Me (1989)

Director: Michael Moore

Stars: Michael Moore, Pat Boone, Roger Smith

Release Company: Dog Eat Dog Films

MPAA Rating: R

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Michael Moore: Roger and Me

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Michael Moore, Rolling Stone no. 957, September 2004
Michael Moore, Rolling Stone no. 957, September 2004 Photographic Print
Watson, Albert
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OFCS

Swashbuckling documentary filmmaking champion of the workingman, Michael Moore first broke into public consciousness with Roger and Me, winner of numerous festival circuit awards and the 1989 New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Documentary. All of Moore's films (Bowling for Columbine and The Big One) trace their roots back to his home state of Michigan, and none more so than Roger and Me, which specifically explores the plight of Flint's autoworkers after massive GM shutdowns and layoffs in the mid 1980's. In a larger sense, Moore indicts greedy American corporations for their profits over people priorities.

Love him or hate him, Roger Moore occupies no middle ground with people. A film-loving teacher friend from Flint thinks his film hilarious, yet I made the mistake of bringing up Moore's name in the presence of his father, only to hear epithets denouncing him as an "asshole." That's the nature of politics, and Moore's specialty is creating provocative documentaries with a decided slant.

Hey, it's his damned movie, and he's making no claims of journalistic objectivity. It's almost a guarantee that serious conservatives committed to big business will hate this film unless they can laugh at themselves or their political brethren. What Moore does best is lace his films with an offbeat sense of humor and tread unsuspecting places while tracking down his quarry—in this case, seeking an audience with Roger Smith, the GM CEO responsible for closing down the historic Flint auto factory while opening up new plants in Mexico. Beginning with home movies, pictures, and archive footage, Moore paints a capsule of his early years in Flint, along with a retrospective look at Flint's important place in GM history and the beginnings of the United AutoWorkers Union—all with a flair for humorous irony. Then Dan Rather's newscast on the fateful day that the GM closings occur provides the impetus for the rest of the film.

Despite the gloominess of the situation and the ugliness of Flint's blighted downtown and boarded up residential neighborhoods, Moore's film is humorously lighthearted. For example, the Beach Boys' "Wouldn't it be Nice" plays over the scenes showing Flint's ugly side. Moore is a master of comic juxtaposition, like when a cheery and smiling Miss Michigan parades through a glum crowd in front of deserted downtown buildings, or when the local sheriff evicts a family on Christmas eve.

Most often the subjects provide the humor and irony themselves, much in the same quirky style as Errol Morris, the GM executive who offers up the idea of manufacturing lint rollers to substitute for the 30,000 auto worker jobs lost; the Taco Bell manager who fires all the autoworkers from his fast food restaurant because they couldn't handle the pace and pressure; the distressed Amway distributor who misdiagnosed her "Spring" colors as "Autumn" (prompting Moore to have himself color analyzed); and the relaxed upper class ladies on the country club golf course who criticize the laid-off factory hands for "being lazy." Moore has an eye for irony and weirdness, but lame ideas like spending millions on an indoor AutoWorld amusement park to attract tourism did come from the Flint city council, and he didn't cause it to flop so dismally after a short six months. His camera records these silly moments throughout, exposing the folly of well-meaning public servants who didn't realize that people don't like to celebrate disasters while on vacation.

The villain of the piece is corporate head Roger Smith, who sequesters himself from everyday working people and deftly avoids Moore's pursuit until the end. Moore's documentary quest to seek an audience with Smith is a brilliant device, pulling the audience in on his side and creating a sense of drama after Moore is continually denied access at GM's Detroit headquarters, at Smith's private health club, or at his country club restaurant. The workers naturally paint an ugly picture of Smith, but Moore does find one GM executive who states that Smith is a warm, compassionate man...but by the end of the film that GM executive is laid off too.

And that's how it goes with this creative look at corporate America. Moore will never be accused of being an objective documentary filmmaker, but his lively works are highly entertaining as his confrontational camera meanders from one scene to the next. After years of dry documentaries, Roger and Me demonstrates that this genre can be as hilarious as any comedy on the market and provide some sharp political muckraking to boot.

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