Documentaries have such a terrible reputation with audiences for being boring and “good for you” that the pesky folk humor of Michael Moore’s “Roger & Me” is almost startling. This movie about the effect of auto plant closures in Flint, Mich., the birthplace of General Motors, is being touted as a documentary for people who don’t like documentaries, and that’s not far wrong.
More to the point, it’s a documentary for people who are unaccustomed to how
entertaining documentaries can be. All the best ones are.
The jokiness in “Roger & Me” (opening Friday in San Diego County) isn’t simply in the movie to relieve boredom. The film is a piece of cockeyed outrage, and the black comedy arises naturally, inevitably, from the seriousness of the situation.
In late 1986, General Motors, under its current president, Roger Smith, shut down 11 auto plants, which brought to about 30,000 the total number of jobs eliminated in Flint since 1974. (Flint’s population is about 150,000.) Moore, who lives in Flint, began filming in early 1988; originally he wanted Smith to accompany him for a day to survey the havoc wreaked by GM’s policies in his hometown.
Snubbed in a series of attempts to reach Smith, Moore turned the quest into loopy skulduggery. He includes on the sound track the “William Tell Overture” theme music from “The Lone Ranger” during one of his periodic forays to ambush Smith; he poses as a stockholder at the annual GM shareholders meeting and has his microphone cut off moments before posing a question to the prez.
It’s apparent early on that Moore isn’t going to be granted entry into Smith’s inner sanctum, and Moore milks the rejection--makes it politically symbolic. Chunky, rumpled, dressed in his standard working-class uniform of down jacket and cap, Moore stands in clear contrast to Smith’s sleek yachting-club gentility. It looks like paint-by-number Marxism, but Moore wants us to recognize it as a true picture.
This may be Moore’s first movie, but he has an extensive left-wing political-activist background. He founded the well-regarded alternative newspaper Flint Voice in 1976, appeared as a commentator on National Public Radio and was briefly the editor of Mother Jones magazine in 1986. (The $50,000 he was awarded in a wrongful-dismissal suit against Mother Jones contributed to “Roger & Me’s” $200,000 budget.)
Moore may present himself as an indefatigable bumpkin--did he really expect to get in to see Roger Smith dressed in such a rumply fashion?--but there’s righteous guile in his film making. He doesn’t approach the Flint closures with the kind of documentary gravity that one would expect of a crusading journalist. Instead, he selects incidents for their power to rile you while making you laugh, bypassing such obvious insertions as shots of long unemployment lines. Moore has a wicked gift for fulfilling audience expectation that many a veteran director might envy; he dispenses with statistics in favor of the “found” humor that is seemingly all around him in Flint.
Some examples: an annual “Great Gatsby” party put on by the town’s upper-crusters, where unemployed auto workers are hired to grace the lawns as “living sculptures”; an opening-night fund-raiser in a newly constructed Flint jail, to which moneyed locals, many of them in party costumes, pay $100 to spend the night behind bars; a live “Nightline” telecast on Flint’s plight that is unexpectedly aborted when the show’s TV transmission truck is stolen.
Moore’s rage is spiced by a nostalgia for the boomtown days of his childhood. (Virtually all of his extended family worked for GM; his uncle took part in the 44-day sit-down strike in 1937 that gave rise to the United Auto Workers.) He opens his film with promotional documentary footage from GM’s better days in Flint--town parades, Pat Boone and Dinah Shore crooning Chevrolet’s praises. The intended irony here is only partial. Moore tells us that these movies show Flint as he remembers it, and, judging from the honeyed tone in his voice-overs for this section, he must really revel in those days. He accepts the boosterism of boomtown Flint as a populist artifact. It’s a mythology that he chooses to believe in.
In present-day Flint, the same boostered spirit is portrayed by Moore as a vast and corrupting lie. Pat Boone is brought back to Flint and, in an interview with Moore, praises Roger Smith as a “can-do kind of guy.” Anita Bryant is trundled onstage to sing “Put Your Hand in the Hand.” Ronald Reagan takes 12 unemployed auto workers out for a pizza and informs them that there are jobs to be had in Texas. The Rev. Robert Schuller, hired for $20,000, lectures his dispossessed audience to “turn your hurt into a halo.” Bob Eubanks, a Flint escapee, returns home to host a stage version of “The Newlywed Game.” (He also, while being interviewed by Moore, spouts in what was presumably an off moment a vile anti-Semitic AIDS joke.)
Flint’s sky-high crime-rate, a direct result of the rampant unemployment, spurs the city fathers to action. To attract tourism (!), a $13-million Hyatt Regency Hotel and a $100-million AutoWorld theme park are constructed, with disastrous results.
Moore doesn’t point up the chronology of these events, many of which predate the 1986 closures by at least several years. For example, Reagan’s appearance was in 1980, as a candidate for president; the Hyatt Regency opened in 1982, AutoWorld in mid-1984. But the fuzzy ordering of events doesn’t negate Moore’s general point: that, instead of jobs and a helping hand, GM fed its workers homilies and condescension. They’re informed of the promising careers to be had in the fast-food business, or as Amway salesmen.
Moore’s sympathies are resolutely class-based, and at times that makes the film seem too simple-mindedly doctrinaire. The moneyed classes in Flint are portrayed as modern-day Marie Antoinettes.
The working class, many of whom we see in the process of being evicted, are all victims of GM. Even the chief evictor, the black sheriff’s deputy Fred Ross, is regarded somewhat sympathetically, because his own roots are working class. Moore doesn’t portray any principled civic regard among the well-to-do; he doesn’t bring up blue-collar racism toward the Japanese.
Even in the areas where he is on more solid ground, such as the sequence where he mentions GM’s move to Mexico in search of cheap non-union labor, and the company’s resultant investment in weapons manufacture, Moore breezes through without much analysis. Clearly he is not interested in a deep-dish political treatise here, but the way these issues are skimped and glossed carries its own element of condescension toward the audience. Moore sees the movies as his arena to reach the masses, and he doesn’t want to blow his chance, or presumably his own investment, by putting everyone to sleep. Outrage brings out the political cartoonist in him, and he is content to leave the drawings sketchy. He may even feel that that sketchiness best represents the bare, unadulterated truth about capitalism.
If he were an even finer film maker, Moore might have found a way to make more complex political points and still hold his audience. He sees what he is doing here as the only credible alternative to the dour documentary approach to urban misery, but his approach isn’t comprehensive enough to take in the full tragicomedy of Flint, which is, after all, representative of working-class woes throughout America). When he inserts actual footage of a crazed criminal being gunned downed by Flint police, the images jar with the movie’s rollicky nihilism. They seem “too real” for the rest of the film. “Roger & Me” is a terrific movie, but if it were a great one, those images would reverberate with the shareholders’ meetings and the AutoWorlds and the Gatsby parties.
‘ROGER & ME’
A Warner Brothers release. Written, produced and directed by Michael Moore. Editor Wendey Stanzler and Jennifer Beman.
Running time: 1 hour 28 minutes.
MPAA-rated: R (younger than 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian).