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‘Roger & Me’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 12, 1990

"Roger & Me," Michael Moore's documentary about the effects of General Motors plant closings in his hometown of Flint, Mich., is a hilariously cranky bit of propaganda. One part home movie, one part editorial, one part letter bomb, the film is a one-man insurrection. And -- imagine that -- the man is just some yob with a movie camera, an auto worker's son who has never made a film before and who sees in the demise of his home city the perfect metaphor for everything that's gone wrong with America.

The result is one of the most subversively comic political films in memory. Moore presents "Roger & Me" as his End of the '80s essay, his attempt to reclaim the decade from those who would have it remembered as an upbeat era of rebuilding and progress. His subject, in the most limited sense, is Flint itself. As the home to several major GM facilities, Flint was a proud industrial town caught up in the great postwar American dream. But due to shutdowns and layoffs, more than 30,000 workers lost their jobs, leaving Flint desolate, rat-infested, a city with teeming jails, a soaring crime rate and plummeting expectations -- a postindustrial American wasteland that Money magazine proclaimed the worst place to live in the country.

About all this Moore is deeply funny and deeply serious. When the laughs come -- and there are more here than in any movie I saw all last year -- they have a prankster's reckless irreverence. His target and elusive costar is GM Chairman Roger B. Smith, whom Moore tracks throughout the movie in an attempt to confront him with the devastation his company has left in its wake.

Moore loves making trouble, but his impudence is multilayered and fueled, primarily, by rage. He comes on in "Roger & Me" with the bratty effrontery of a party crasher, out to spoil everyone's fun. He dogs Smith at his office (where he offers the security forces his Chuck E Cheese discount card for identification), at his yacht club in Grosse Pointe, at his athletic club in Detroit. Moore even manages somehow to gain entrance to GM's annual stockholders meeting, where his mike is cut just as he is about to speak.

The party Moore's crashing here, though, is the Reagan '80s. Acting as the film's curmudgeonly master of ceremonies, Moore presents a collection of sneaky riffs on a score of topics, both large and small -- from unionism and capitalism to Pat Boone, beauty pageants and game shows -- and spins them into a highly personal, shorthand history of American corporate collapse.

On another level, it's a kind of critique of the great American dream of sunny, smiley-face, middle-class prosperity. Moore's greatest gift is his feel for the native American surrealism -- his sense of us as a people who love diving donkeys and dancing spark plugs and parades with Shriners driving around in miniature Model T's. To Moore, these funky absurdities are on a direct line with an attempt to raise spirits in Flint by bringing the Rev. Robert Schuller to town to say things like "Tough times don't last, tough people do." Or Anita Bryant's buck-up rendition of "You'll Never Walk Alone." Or Ronald Reagan's kind offer to buy pizza for 10 unemployed auto workers. To demonstrate his appreciation, one of the guests rips off the pizzeria's cash register on his way out.

Two motifs connect these various plot threads: the search for Roger and the operations of Sheriff's Deputy Fred Ross, who, with cool efficiency, travels around town, pounding on doors and evicting families from their homes. The latter's scenes work as dark counterpoint to the generally amused tone; they're the movie's dire bottom line. Without them, it might come across as a glib radical cartoon.

Wearing baggy jeans, a windbreaker and a cap reading "I'm out for Trout," Moore styles himself as a kind of beer-bellied rube, but the Average Joe pose is merely an elaborate disguise for a highly sophisticated, cagey wit. Moore is a naysayer in the classic American tradition -- a working-class sorehead with attitude to burn. Class anger is part of what drives him. He hates the twits who dress up in costume for their "Great Gatsby" party or rush to plunk down $100 to spend the night in the city's spanking new jail. In essence, though, he's an equal-opportunity basher -- everyone gets a turn, and he's nearly as scathing in his derision for one woman who slaughters rabbits to make ends meet. Or the future Miss America, Kaye Lani Rae Rafko, who virtually quivers in front of the camera, desperate not to put her foot in her mouth.

As a comic, Moore sees virtually everyone as fair game, but then he presents himself in nearly as harsh a light as the others. None comes off as badly as the eponymous Roger, though. Reading his bland Christmas message to the stockholders and their children, he quotes Dickens, and in the process he becomes mythic, the personification of the heartless capitalist -- a real-life Scrooge.

When I first saw the film, it struck me as the most impressively articulated response to the Reagan era I'd seen. Since then it has come out that Moore has -- either intentionally or through lack of skill -- fuzzied the chronology of events, creating the impression that the plant closings and layoffs took place all at once, around 1986 and '87, instead of over a period of more than a decade. In other instances too, Moore may have fallen short of factual accuracy.

Though this doesn't invalidate his political points, it does cast them in a more dubious light -- and Moore along with them. The unfortunate effect of this imprecision is to reduce a great film to a nearly great one. It does not, however, interfere with our pleasure at seeing Pat Boone refer to Roger Smith as a "can-do kinda guy." Or diminish the epic silliness of the city's efforts to rescue Flint by turning it into a tourist center with the construction of a Hyatt Hotel, a shopping center and, as its biggest draw, a Disney World-type tribute to the auto industry called AutoWorld.

In "Roger & Me," Moore's brand of slapstick reportage strikes the perfect balance between irony and sincerity; it's slyly deadpan and committed, democratic and kingly all at once. In the end, though, he winds up giving ironic credence to the swells at the Great Gatsby party who advise the laid-off workers to get out there and do something. He's shown what one man with a camera crew and a vision can do.

Copyright The Washington Post

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