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Roger & Me
★★★★☆
First run Seenmorethanonce Theater cinema Tv laptop

Michael Moore burst onto the public sphere in 1989 as the director, producer, writer, and star of this first-person documentary about his hometown of Flint, Michigan and the economic impact of General Motors closing several auto plants in that region. Roger & Me ostensibly follows Moore’s quest to connect with GM’s CEO Roger Smith and bring him to Flint so he can see the results of his decision to put so many residents out of work. Moore financed this scrappy, hilarious little 16mm feature with money he got from the settlement of a wrongful termination lawsuit he filed against Mother Jones magazine. Unsuccessful as a journalist, Moore mortgaged his house and set out to chronicle how the economic policies and attitudes of the Reagan era were rewarding corporations and screwing workers, undermining the backbone of America and, in cases like Flint, all but decimating entire cities. Moore hits his talking points hard but makes them with so much humor that this rather depressing story ended up one of the best-loved films of the year. Much of the comedy in the movie comes at the expense of the regular folks Moore claims to be championing. Many viewers and critics of the day (notably Pauline Kale) condemned the picture for making them laugh at, not with, the people most hard hit by the plant closings. Moore claimed that he was just showing his hometown as it was, and his neighbors as they were. Indeed the brunt of the film’s snide humor comes from Moore’s depiction of the wealthier members of the town and the deplorable visiting celebrities—like Anita Bryant, Pat Boone, and Bob Eubanks—who fly in on goodwill junkets to try to buck up the locals. Regardless, it’s no stretch to draw a line from Moore’s film to the work of Sacha Baron Cohen in terms of getting real people to do and say shocking or hilariously embarrassing things on camera. But the blue-collar workers, law enforcement officials, and unemployed men and women Moore introduces to viewers, while often funny and deeply human, are not presented as rust-belt halfwits to be mocked. We feel for these individuals and are left with an understanding of their lives both before the GM closures and after. 

Roger & Me became the most successful documentary in American history during its theatrical release (surpassed only by two other of Moore's movies: Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11), yet it was not nominated for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar. This was mostly due to the way the documentary wing of the Academy considered films back then. Their process, which often excluded docs that were box office hits, was changed as a result of the outcry over their failure to nominate Hoop Dreams five years later—resulting in the equally problematic situation of making the award into a popularity contest. But at the time there was much speculation that Moore had been denied the nomination as punishment for not following the “rules” of documentaries. This was hogwash. While Moore does construct this film in such a way that not everything unfolds exactly in the order in which all the events transpired, but the idea that this technique was somehow new to non-fiction filmmaking, or that documentaries need to be “fair and balanced” is absurd. 

Moore’s actual sins are the very things he got the most praise for and what he would go on to build his entire career on. The David vs Goliath aspect of Roger & Me is wonderful, and Moore’s underdog perspective is part of what gives this tenacious little picture its charm and edge, but it became difficult to take this persona seriously once the filmmaker reached major celebrity status in his own right. And, more than anyone, Moore is responsible for the slew of documentarians who put themselves at the center of their movies, often overshadowing their professed subjects. Even Werner Herzog—omnipresent in his non-fiction work—never abuses his power as a documentarian to the extent that Moore and those who've followed in his footsteps do; using documentaries for self-promotion and brand building as much as (or instead of) uncovering a truth. 

Moore’s inherent smugness comes through in Roger & Me, but at the time he made the movie his unique voice and perspective were unlike anything anyone had seen in cinema. He takes us along with him on his adventure as a first-time filmmaker and we are excited to go on the trip. Roger & Me exposes the great lie of trickle-down economics and provides a firsthand look at the dismantling of the American Dream with satirical wit and lived-in insight. After the success of this pictureMoore would go on to play faster and looser with facts, edit sequences for laughs rather than authenticity, and ignore substantive but contradictory information that didn't align with his pre-ordained conclusions. As much as Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, and their blowhard ilk, Moore's brand of simplistic, sometimes misleading infotainment has contributed to the decline of journalism. But Roger & Me is not journalism. It is a personal cinematic essay from an unlikely humorist with a distinctive way of putting across his observations. And, sadly, it is even more relevant thirty years later than it was in 1989.

Twitter Capsule:
Moore’s iconic debut about the economic impact of General Motors closing auto plants in Flint, Michigan is still one of the freshest, funniest, most on-point documentaries ever made, despite the self-aggrandising style of doc it spawned.

Directed by Michael Moore
Produced by Michael Moore

Written by Michael Moore

With: Michael Moore, Janet Rauch, Rhonda Britton, Fred Ross, Kaye Lani Rae Rafko, James Blanchard, Pat Boone, Anita Bryant, Bob Eubanks, and Roger B. Smith

Cinematography: Chris Beaver, John Prusak, Kevin Rafferty, and Bruce Schermer
Editing: Jennifer Beman White and Wendey Stanzler

Runtime: 91 min
Release Date: 17 September 1989
Aspect Ratio: 1.66 : 1
Color