Roger and Me, a scathingly funny documentary about the effects on Flint, Michigan of plant closures carried out by General Motors, became a huge commercial success, despite concerted attempts by GM to discredit it.
As a documentary about economic recession and emotional dislocation, it deals with subjects that are gritty even for public TV. It reveals the corporate strategy of “downsizing” to be a vicious attack on the lives of working people. Yet audiences came out of the screening buoyed up.
Admittedly, some f the humor was made at the expense of Flint's unemployed, but, as Vincent Canby pointed in the N.Y. Times, it was mostly a result of the on-screen personality of Moore, a former journalist who shares with Mark Twain the singular gift for making common sense sound funny. Like Twain, Moore was biased, pessimistic, and not exactly fair.
Moore decided to make the film while watching a TV news story about GM's plans to close factories in his hometown, Flint. For him, the film represented a legitimate action, one far more effective than burning buildings down. Moore wanted to show the basic underpinnings of capitalism–the disregard American corporations have for their workers. But he didn't want to send his audiences out of the theater sad; hence, the innovative addition of satire to the documentary format.
As Jim Hobermann observed, Moore's philosophy fitted Reaganism: American history is a movie and he's the hero. The filmmaker's own story dovetails with that of Flint, when he returns home after a brief stint as executive editor of the leftist “Mother Jones,” to find that GM has closed 11 factories. Moore's obsessive mission is to bring GM chairman Roger Smith to see the human cost of his decision. A road movie, Roger and Me is structured around Moore's hilariously unsuccessful attempts to find the chairman in his various hideaways. Personal as it is, Roger and Me still offers a startling overview of the past decade.
Opening with images of l950s affluence, the film harks back to the golden age of working-class prosperity. Reagan himself drops in briefly to share a ceremonial pizza with a group of unemployed autoworkers, suggesting that they move to Texas. There's a flow of vapid TV personalities and patriotic cheerleaders, televangelists, Anita Bryant, former GM spokesperson. Native son Bob Eubanks confirms his sleazy demeanor as a TV game show host, with an anti-Semitic joke. A self-absorbed Miss Michigan (soon to be named Miss America) leads a pathetic parade down Main Street.
As Flint becomes America's most violent city, crime control becomes a growth industry and some laid-off autoworkers find employment as jailers. There is a delicious scene that depicts the opening of a new prison with a benefit party for Flint's upper crust. As factories close and Taco Bells proliferate, Flint attempts to reinvent itself as a tourist attraction. The city subsidizes luxury hotel and spends millions on an indoor theme park whose attractions include a miniatured version of the old downtown and an autoworker singing a love song to the robot that has replaced him on the assembly line. Everything fails and Flint finishes 99th on a magazine list of America's 100 most desirable places to live. A Nightline expose is aborted just before airtime when the show's equipment truck is hijacked by an unemployed worker.
Moore claims never to have read Marx, but he exhibits a sense of the grotesque worthy of Das Kapital. Roger and Me is well-stocked with savage metaphors for economic relations: Flint's unemployed proletariat pose as human statues at fat-cat parhes, well their blood, raise bumpy rabbits for food.
As Moore had no film experience and no equipment, he enlisted help of Kevin Rafferty (co-director of Atomic Cafe), and Anne Bohlen (who directed Babes and Banners). The documentary took two years to shoot and cost about $260,000. Moore raised money by selling his house, a court settlement with Mother Jones, grants, and a weekly bingo game. The film was sold to Warner Brothers for an all-time record of $3 million, and took in $20 million worldwide, making it one of the most commercial documentaries ever.
In his effort to discredit Moore, Roger Smith claimed he had not seen the film, but believed it did a great disservice to the Flint community and GM workers. Before an appearance of the “Tonight Show,” Moore learned that GM was putting pressure on NBC regarding his appearance, and he was shown a “truth packet” distributed by GM which included a Film Comment critical piece and a New Yorker review by Pauline Kael, which questioned the film's chronology. GM had been sending this packet to journalists around the country. A publication of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Film Comment had just received a $5 million gift from GM.
Moore was supposed to speak to a group of Soviet teachers visiting Flint, but it was canceled because the school system was afraid of a backlash from GM. A teacher asked Moore if he could sneak him a bootleg copy of the film. Deputy Fred (the sheriff who evicts the unemployed in the film) sued Moore, because he believed his “performance” in the film should have been compensated.
Moore' opponents have emphasized the following problems: The wealthy homes shot in the film were on a different street than stated; the rats in the film were from Detroit, not Flint; the chronology was wrong because the tourism projects to save the town were built before the factory closing; and the cash register was stolen just before Reagan's lunch, not during, as Moore claimed.
Moore used Ralph Nader's office during film production. Nader's organization later criticized Moore for two conversations he did have with Roger Smith after filming had already begun. Moore's former allies have complained that he has hogged too much of the spotlight. Nader and UAW sent Moore some of the same materials opposing the film that GM had sent out. Moore held that well-off liberals were disturbed, because the film told some dirty little secret of the yuppie era (Moore). When critics questioned whether Roger and Me was a “real” documentary, Moore charged back that real journalists did not want to explore the political issues raised by him.
Reviews of the film were positive, except for Pauline Kael's and a Film Comment essay. Premiering at the Telluride Festival, the film was named “most popular film at Toronto Festival (the first documentary to be so honored since Best Boy). Roger and Me also received the L.A. and N.Y. Film Critics Awards for Best Documentary. Gene Siskel said that in the future, when looking back at the Reagan era, two films would stand out as significant statements of the times, Do the Right Thing and Roger and Me.
Roger and Me failed to be nominated for an Academy Award; a member of the Academy committee said the film didn't stand a chance, because there were easily five better films that year. This is the same quote given by Mitchell Block the year before, when The Thin Blue Line was not nominated. Block owns a documentary distribution company; in the last 10 years, nearly one quarter of all film, which has, won the Academy Award have been Block films. Moore claimed that he did not have time to respond to his critics before the nominating committee voted, even though the 5 films that did get nominated were all out of chronological order (3 of which were distributed by Block)
Donahue came to Flint to broadcast two shows on the hometown's reaction the film. Before the show, a death threat was made against Moore. GM pulled ads from the Donahue show and threatened to pull their commercials from any show that had Moore as a guest.
As for Moore, he went on a 110-city tour promoting the film, which, by 1990, became the most commercial American documentary ever made.