ROGER AND ME (1989) ****. Written, produced and directed by Michael Moore. A Warners release. 83 minutes. Rated R (occasional strong language).
Roger is General Motors chairman Roger Smith. "Me" is Michael Moore from Flint, Michigan, a.ka. "Buick City." In the 1980's , plant closings in Flint --in favor of new openings of Mexican factories with cheaper -- undo the social and economic fabric of the city. The proletarian part of Flint becomes a disaster area.
Journalist Moore, the only one in a long family line not to become a GM worker, wants answers for this catastrophe and tries to interview Roger Smith. In vain. The film's guiding thread is Moore's stalking of the Chairman from 1987 to 1989.
Around this, Moore weaves his autobiography, a portrait of Flint through the years, descriptions of the blight, cases of duress and evictions (one of which is suspended for three days until the cameras go away), scenes of celebrities who try to uplift spirits with shows or idiotic pronouncements .
As the poor get poorer, the rich keep their wealth and are shockingly insensitive to the tragedy of others. As Flint becomes like a "favella" in Rio and crime rises, the haves give garden-parties with "living statues" or costume balls in the new jail.
In the ancient times of Rome's decadence, the people were given little bread and lots of circus games. Now Pat Boone returns to Flint and mouths absurdities. Tacky Bob Eubanks does The Newlywed Game. An inept Miss Michigan thinks only of becoming Miss America (she did.) . Anita Bryant inanely counsels : "hang in there."
The unemployed are doing just that. Some sell their blood. Others try to work at the Taco Bell, but find te pace faster than the assembly line's. (Moore does not withhold his barbs from the poor .)
A woman raises rabbits in unsanitary conditions . We see her "butchering her babies" while hare-brained schemes are hatched by the city fathers. Like absurd efforts to make Flint into a center for tourism . The promotional film is as ridiculous as any 1950's commercial.
Moore uses every means at his disposal. He tells Flint's saga in a personal yet cool , tongue-in-cheek way, using an arsenal of old visuals (home movies, newsreels, TV footage, commercials) and new material shot with a tiny crew. The man looks ordinary but he is a terrific humorist.
The structure and scope of the film are wide-ranging and complex. Moore's satire delivers blow after blow -- some will say low blows. Moore has caused a flap . He's been accused of manipulating events by cheating with chronology. This may be, but "Roger And Me" ought not to be seen as a pure documentary. It is advocacy, partisan journalism.
If we accept GM's "documentary" ads without protest , why choke at Moore's approach? Simply call it docu-fiction and think of propaganda , fact-rearranging classics like "The Battleship Potemkin" or "Ten Days That Shook the World."
Years ago there were endless arguments about "cinema-verite", film that tells nothing but the truth. When the smoke cleared, the unshakable conclusion was that there's no such thing as totally objective film, that it is all a matter of degree.
Moore's is the work of a satirist who would spot the endless absurdities of life even if he had no axe to grind. Like his colleagues Russell Baker, Mark Russell or Dave Barry, the job comes with editorial slants and exaggerations--but the underlying truth is solid.
"Roger And Me" is original, delicious , simultaneously sad and a laugh-a-minute . It is every bit as good as its fame --or notoriety.
[Published January 6, 1990]