Our review of Roger & Me (1989) (Blu-ray), published October 30th, 2014, is also available.
A humorous look at how General Motors destroyed Flint, Michigan.
For the few people left in the world that are unaware of Michael Moore, the blue-collar everyman activist extraordinaire, Roger & Me is an excellent introduction. Smart, witty, downright harsh, and at times, even cruel, Moore points the camera at the economic downfall of Flint, Michigan, bravely taking in all the devastation, poverty, and despair, while at the same time comically trying to chase down the general manager of General Motors over a three-year period.
The chaos thus becomes a movie, and a darn good one at that.
Facts of the Case
Roger & Me, Moore's first film, was made back in 1989, and is a daring piece of low-budget workingman filmmaking. For example: when he started the movie, Moore was on unemployment insurance, funding the project with government checks totaling $99 a week. This is blue-collar credibility.
In the 1980s, Flint, Michigan, was a beacon of economic prosperity in America—employment was high, demand for automobiles was high, and General Motors blanketed the town in its warm corporate embrace. This was the American Dream: everybody worked hard, and everyone was rewarded as the company succeeded. And succeed it did—GM was posting record profits, and all was well in the world.
Then, suddenly, GM announced that they would be closing down the Flint operations, moving the factories to Mexico, and hiring a completely new workforce, citing economic factors and competitive pressure—all the while posting record profits. At the time, GM was the wealthiest company in all America.
The effect on Flint, Michigan, was disastrous.
The film covers the entire decade of the 1980s in Flint, Michigan, as Moore explores the ramifications of GM's economic decision to pull out of Flint—which is Moore's hometown. By 1989, 50% of Flint's GM workforce was unemployed, causing a level of unemployment in the city unprecedented in American history.
Entire sections of the city remain abandoned, fled after crushing economic depression and poverty overtook the city like a tidal wave, giving the impression of an eerie ghost town as citizens packed up and moved elsewhere—a city abandoned by the masses.
Consistently ranked in polls as "the worst city in America," with an astonishing level of unemployment, Flint's violent crime rate surpassed Miami and became the highest in all of America.
In Roger & Me, Moore takes his cameras to the streets, talking to people, recording the abandoned streets, chronicling the life and times of Flint as a town and as an organic entity—its people struggling to come to the realization that the corporate blanket that had provided prosperity and security to each of its citizens was suddenly gone, and would never come back.
More about the town itself than about any one person, or entity, or company, Roger & Me speaks to the tragic injustice of Flint as a whole, rather than simply muckraking and attacking a large corporation. Certainly, Moore has strong feelings on the subject, and the liberal ideologies ring strong and true, but the film spends more time exploring the town itself than it spends pointing fingers.
Moore's aggressive, heavy-handed style of "pseudo-documentary" narrative began its prolific rise in Roger & Me. There are few dates in the film, which is a deliberate technique in Moore's films. Continuity is suspended in favor of good, dramatic filmmaking.
His style has always seemed radically at odds with the documentary medium that he works in, a main criticism of his work. However, those who disliked Bowling for Columbine may find Roger & Me more to their liking—it is less manipulative, more traditional in terms of style. It is an easier film to swallow, but the content still strikes the insides just as hard.
Roger & Me is not a study in objective filmmaking, to say the least. Targeting General Motors as the obvious culprit in Flint's economic destruction, his mission is to coax the head of General Motors, Roger Smith, to visit Flint and see first-hand the reality of a post-GM Flint, Michigan.
Not surprisingly, General Motors comes out looking rather bad.
One of the most dramatic and powerful scenes in the film involve a woman selling rabbits out of her home, either as pets or as meat—your choice. Her economic support is tied into these rabbits, stored in cages in her backyard, and as Moore films, she clubs a rabbit to death with a pipe, hangs it from a tree, and skins and guts it.
The montage editing is shockingly harsh and cruel at times—footage of the GM Chairman giving Christmas salutations to his workers intertwines brutally with the footage of a family getting violently evicted from their home on Christmas Eve. As Roger Smith warmly gushes about man caring for his fellow man during the holidays, the repo men toss the family's poorly decorated Christmas tree out onto the lawn along with the presents.
Manipulative, yes; but my, oh my, terribly effective.
Moore signed his film with Warner Bros. not based on the amount of money offered, but rather, based on other, less traditional demands—the studio committed to show the film in 800 theatres across America. The studio agreed, and did one better, showing it in 1,300.
Moore insisted that the families shown evicted in the films would have two years worth of rent paid for by Warner Bros. The studio agreed.
Moore even insisted that Warner Bros. fit the bill for a quarter of a million tickets to be pre-paid by the studio, available to anyone, free-of-charge, upon presentation of their unemployment card.
They agreed. In fact, everything Moore asked the studio to do, they did, and more.
The DVD commentary, done by Moore himself almost 14 years after the film was completed, was recorded shortly after he had won the Oscar for Bowling for Columbine—a coincidence he is more than happy to point out and chortle over. Moore is surprisingly reserved and introspective when standing off the soapbox, a pleasant revelation. Watching the film, he admits a grudging respect and awe to his "opponents" in the film, admiring the brutal honesty in those who stand in the way of his quest to meet the head boss of GM. He reflects on how he rarely sees the same kind of harsh, open honesty that the security guards, PR people, lobbyists, spokesman, and the like gave him almost 15 years ago—today, everything is glossed over, every answer is smooth and practiced and prepared. But back then, nobody saw him coming—his lack of infamy made things a lot easier, if not more interesting, coaxing answers out of people. What lingers in the memory are Moore's confidential, personal feelings expressed during the commentary. Moore stops at various points to watch the scenes from his old town, takes deep, shaky breaths, and tries to compose himself. The site of old, familiar buildings long-since bulldozed away causes starling moments of introspection and emotion in Moore (having not seen the film personally in five years). There is a level of connection, of personal interest, a genuine feeling of concern and emotion between this film and the filmmaker, which is actually touching to witness; one feels a sense of intruding on a man's private reflections of his life, growing up in a blue-collar community torn asunder by white-collar business decisions that the individuals affected have no chance of comprehending.
The visuals of the town are actually shocking in their bleakness and sheer emptiness—one would not be surprised to see two lone gunman step out and start shooting at one another while tumbleweeds drift by. This is the level of desperation that is captured on film, and it is a shocking thing indeed.
Watching the film, realizing that things were indeed this grim for an entire community in America, it is hard to accept the realization that, today, in modern-day Flint—things are actually worse now than during the filming of Roger & Me back in the late 1980s.
Moore laughs and tells about how people read this film today, and regard Roger & Me fondly, actually remembering "the good old days" where 50,000 jobs were secure in Flint, as opposed to the current 15,000.
The truth is more surreal than fiction could ever be.
Visually, the film quality is inconsistent. Rapidly changing video, film and archival source material change the feel and tonal qualities of the film rapidly, and make giving an overall feeling for the film difficult. Still, the quality of the footage shot for the film himself is fairly clean and sharp, considering its low-budget source and relative age. Terrible by modern standards, but for a 16mm transfer—fairly respectable. Overall, the film looks as good as can be expected.
The audio is weaker, but holds up fairly well—recorded by Moore and a four-man crew on reel-to-reel tapes, the quality is fairly inconsistent (based on rapidly shifting location shots, recording situations, wind, noise, and so on) and gets pretty dreadful at times as the wind crackles and other noises clutter the track. Overall though, the Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track is a consistent mix, with no noticeable problems on the DVD end.
No doubt, the film has never looked or sounded better—just remember that the film never looked and sounded good to begin with.
In perhaps the most telling revelation to illuminate the desperate situation in Flint—at least, the most poignant and relevant observation for the sake of this DVD review—is this, the final message of the film. As the credits fade to black, the screen displays the following:
"This film cannot be shown within the city of Flint."
The reason? All the movie theatres there have been closed down.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Say this out loud, in your best pirate voice: "Aargh! Full-screen?"
Full-screen modified presentations are minus points in the eyes of most DVD reviewers. While modified aspect ratios are never preferable to the "real thing," admittedly, given the nature of Roger & Me (recorded on 16mm, chock full of stock footage, archived video, and film clips), the full-screen presentation leaves the visual integrity of the film relatively intact.
This is a rare occasion where a modified full-screen presentation is
actually an acceptable way of watching a specific film; pan-and-scan is
non-existent, and one does not feel "cheated" or "ripped
off" in any way while watching Roger & Me in full screen.
Another negative: the DVD is a snap-cased bare-boned release. It feels suspiciously rushed, more than likely thrust onto shelves after Moore hit his Oscar high note; as a result, the disc feels fairly unimpressive in terms of extras and film transfer—detractors draw comparison to the nearly identical VHS release of the film, of which the DVD offers little improvement.
Despite its similarities to its VHS counterpart, Roger & Me is a solid bargain DVD release. Its reasonable price reflects the overall quality of the release, which is satisfactory, and frankly, the film speaks for itself; it needs very little else to supplement it in terms of extras or other special attention.
Okay, let me take a deep breath here:
This film is a testament to the realities of financial decisions in America, a first-hand account of a backlash to the Industrial Revolution. Whether you ideologically believe that large corporations have an obligation to the community and the individual, that corporations should have a social conscious, or whether you think Moore is an idiot; remember that Roger & Me is screened in many economic classes at all levels of education, as an illustration of the affect of economic decision on regular Americans, effects not observable by studying financial statements, or bottom-lines.
Roger & Me is a strong, persuasive, grim, and especially, a groundbreaking work of aggressive documentary filmmaking. The film has its own distinct identity and is a definitive work of American working-class cinema—be it viewed through liberal or conservative eyes.
Though completely overshadowed in the wake of Moore's literary success and Oscar-winning performances, Roger & Me stands as a superior film. Despite being fairly grassroots and rough around the edges, its arguments are far less heavy-handed, its presentations less manipulative than its modern counterpart, Bowling for Columbine. The picture has genuine heart and compassion for its subject matter, and that is a rare thing indeed, of all films.
Absolutely not guilty. Not even guilty for the full-screen treatment.
This is a reasonably priced DVD release of a great film. Its social relevance, smart-alecky entertainment, intellectual interest and modest price tag should ensure its place on even the most politically conservative aficionado's DVD shelf.
Or stack. Or pile.
For those miffed, annoyed, put out, or otherwise disgusted by Moore's current media tomfoolery, the court well advises the exploration of this previous work before writing the man off completely.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Director's Commentary
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