Roger & Me (1989)
Directed by Michael Moore

Everything you need to know about Michael Moore, good and bad, is evident from his first and still best film, Roger & Me. In this one he chases General Motors CEO Roger Smith around the country, trying to get an interview and angling to bring Smith back to Flint, Michigan to witness firsthand the impact his downsizing decisions have had on the community where GM was born.

Moore was born there too, and carries a nostaligic love for the place that has entirely nothing to do with Flint as it is, post-GM-layoffs. It is his disconnection from both the realities of business and the realities of blue-collar life that fuel his unreasonable screed … yet with his quixotic and rose-tinted agenda, Moore manages to uncover a lot of beautiful humanity, almost in spite of himself.

My problem with Moore is that he's little more than a prankster, always posing loaded questions to folks unaware of his intent, and setting up painful situations wherein the only real loser is the poor schlub who happens to encounter him. He is merciless in his mockery of the very people he's trying to depict as the lifeblood of his supposedly beloved community … lots of people trying to do the best they can are unwittingly played off as clowns in Moore's parade, which is ultimately all about him.

One central flaw of Roger & Me, which I've never heard mentioned by anyone for or against Michael Moore, is that he is simply barking up the wrong tree. He uses some really crafty emotional manipulation to make us believe that Roger Smith is the Villain, and that he himself is the Vanquisher. Really, he's more like a Ventriloquist, putting words in people's mouths and editing them like cinematic puppets.

Moore's basic assumptions – that somehow, Roger Smith should be personally accountable for Flint's downward spiral, and that somehow, Moore has a right to assume the role of Ghost of Christmas Future – are simply incorrect. Is he trying to show us that corporate America is deeply flawed? Well, we knew that already … we didn't need a string of easy potshots to illustrate the point.

Moore relies heavily on a GM spokesperson as a subject of ridicule; we're supposed to see the doubletalk and blind faith he espouses as absurd. And he does a good job of making the guy look the fool … except that the guy isn't being particularly deceitful. Corporations are all about the bottom line, not necesarily the enrichment of their employees' lives. It's never been any other way. Moore wants Flint to be like it was when he was a kid, and the truth is, times change.

Should we be angry? Sure. But showing out-of-touch celebrities telling off-color jokes, or clueless dowagers golfing while poor people across town are being evicted, doesn't ultimately address any of the issues.

What is most useful about Roger & Me is the footage itself … if you can get past Moore's indignant clowning, which is the film world equivalent of Elvis Costello's undefined "anger," you are given the opportunity to access many corners of life that you otherwise wouldn't. You meet some colorful characters, and get a chance to feel for them (something Moore doesn't do, as he's so busy trying to show you how much smarter and clued-in he is). You get to witness a community in crisis, and weigh all the causes as you will.

But it's some work to keep yourself from being ensnared by Moore's extremely seductive documentary style … he wants you to believe that he is somehow a martyr to the cause, but to me, a real martyr would have no need to make fun of someone working at Taco Bell.

Roger & Me is a powerful film. Strong. Thoughtful. Harrowing, in a way. Great, in many ways. It should be seen, it should be discussed. But the keenest viewpoint is the one that will see through the bias on both sides and come away with an opinion independent of all the button-pushing.

Interestingly, I don't disagree with Moore's politics at all, but I object to his rampant mean-spiritedness and his complete unwillingness to let the subject speak for itself. Maybe one day the man will turn the camera on himself, and use on himself the same mode of attack he finds it so easy to foist upon everyone else. That, however, would probably be one sad movie.

Review by Charity Burrell