JANUARY/FEBRUARY 1990 - VOLUME 11 - NUMBERS 1 AND 2
F I L M R E V I E W
Roger & Me is a tale about the dissolution of the American dream. The film shows that U.S. workers' trust and confidence in corporate noblesse oblige were misplaced and undeserved. In Roger & Me, Flint, Michigan and its blue collar inhabitants are the Cinderellas at General Motors' ballroom dance. When GM decides to call a halt to the party by closing several plants and laying off 30,000 workers over the course of the eighties, however, a fairy tale ending is not forthcoming.
This is basically the point at which Moore picks up his camera to record the devastation wrought by GM's partial abandonment of Flint, the company's birthplace and symbol of American corporate capitalism. Roger & Me is not a stolid rendering of a community in decline. Instead, Moore's handling of the subject matter breathes life into what could easily have been a drab portrayal of urban disintegration. With Moore's narrative intoning a sardonic wit and his creative use of image juxtaposition, Roger & Me is at once engaging, hilarious, infuriating and terribly sad. The film glides smoothly from archive footage of a more pristine era with GM parades and other propaganda to stark images of the victims of the company's cavalier behavior. There is an uneasy humor that pervades, eliciting a nervous laughter, as if one has been reminded of childhood antics that seem inconceivable now.
The film's chronicling of Flint's efforts at economic rejuvenation provides an analogy to Ronald Reagan's America. Smoke and mirrors supplanted substance. All of Flint's attempts at a municipal facelift failed to grapple with the fundamental issues of losing living wage jobs and of corporate irresponsibility. Visiting preachers and celebrities, including Pat Boone, Anita Bryant and Bob Eubanks, employ Elmer Gantry- like revivalist rhetoric, promoting hope as a panacea to Flint's problems. The actual physical attempts at job building are equally devoid of reality. A new mall and a theme park called Autoworld are described by well-meaning city boosters as symbols that mark the dawn of a new age of prosperity for the city. Sadly, all of these options collapse under Flint's heavy reality. The employment options proposed as substitutes for lost GM jobs - lint remover factories and minimum wage-paying fast- food restaurants - can never replace the well-paying assembly line work that fuelled the city's original growth. Moore mocks the unfounded optimism expressed by proponents of these new developments.
Some of the film's critics charge that a number of statements and scenes in Roger & Me are misleading. For example, Moore describes a visit by Ronald Reagan to Flint without mentioning that it took place when Reagan was campaigning for president in 1980 rather than during his presidency. Though this fact may seem unimportant, omitting it allows Moore to create the impression that the lay-offs and economic trials of Flint took place during his three-year search for GM Chief Executive Officer Roger Smith rather than over the course of the decade.
Moore responds to comments regarding this sort of historical inaccuracy by saying that he did not set out to produce an episode of Nova (the PBS documentary series), and that had he done so, the film certainly would not have gained the audience that Roger & Me is currently enjoying. Nonetheless, Moore could easily have described the Reagan visit as it actually took place without losing any of the black humor of the scene. Omissions of this kind are significant because they leave Moore and his film open to easy criticism from those who would like to dismiss the political and economic messages of the film.
Despite the flaws, Roger & Me is extremely entertaining, but much more importantly it is a refreshingly creative approach to uncovering the neglect and greed that characterize Reagan and Bush's America. The film's success is due to Moore's particular brand of humor. Roger & Me's unabashed corporate slamming makes it a much needed and welcome antidote to the dearth of similar cinematic attempts at grappling with the evils of corporate capitalism. For that reason alone it is worthy of the widest possible audience.