Golden Oldies #7: Roger and Me

Michael Moore’s directorial debut leaves Michael Armstrong somewhat miffed

Don’t you just hate it when someone treats you like an idiot? Michael Moore’s debut documentary feature Roger & Me made me angry. But not because the workforce of Flint, Michigan, had been laid off by General Motors, crippling the town’s economy and destroying a way of life forever. No, I was just plain angry at being talked down to by Mr. Moore for two hours.

Actually, make that four. As to really get your head around a Michael Moore film, you need to watch it twice. The first time around it’s like being smooth talked by a salesman. Moore finishes one poorly argued little point and just as your mind comes up with an objection, he’s presented another one, even more facetious than the first. It’s like being lectured by someone with no real respect for your opinion or intellect, who gives you no chance to get a word in edgewise. And yet all the while there’s an obvious attempt at emotional manipulation, presenting Moore’s self-aggrandisement as investigative zeal, his arrogance as blunt honesty. In spite of all this, you can’t help but be carried along by the narrative of the film.

On the second viewing, however, his methods are much clearer, and all the more infuriating. There’s a fundamental dishonesty to Roger & Me that is truly troubling. Moore has made a successful career out of his unique brand of populism, but this film demonstrates more clearly than Bowling For Columbine, Sicko or even Fahrenheit 9/11 how condescending his world view really is. After showing the heyday and collapse of the automotive industry in Flint, Moore immediately embarks on a personal crusade to get an interview with Roger Smith, head of General Motors. This becomes the central narrative of the film, shifting attention away from the actual human tragedies he claims to care about and focusing on one man: Michael Moore.

And as leading men go, this one’s fucking annoying. He’s a constantly irritating presence, from his smug voice-over to his smart-ass posturing. At one point he tells a story about getting fired from a San Francisco magazine, when he dared to put a Michigan autoworker on the front cover. This is presented as Moore yet again being a man of the people, getting Joe Six-Pack on the cover of a stylish publication. But this shtick didn’t work for Sarah Palin, and it doesn’t work here. If he wanted to put a normal guy on the cover, why didn’t he use someone from the Bay Area, someone who would be relevant to the local magazine? I would have fired him as well.

This kind of cheap point scoring continues throughout the film, as Moore takes aim at the easiest of targets, including a local beauty queen, several minor celebrities, a group of elderly lady golfers and a local theatre director. Instead of showing the plight of someone directly affected by the factory’s closure, we get an extended and gruesome scene with a woman who skins rabbits for a living. No clear connection is ever made between her and the departure of GM, but worse still, Moore even shows contempt for the very people he claims to be representing. A sizeable chunk of the film is dedicated to getting laughs out of Flint’s attempt to turn their economic disaster into a tourist opportunity, and his class warrior pretence simply doesn’t ring true as he marches through the film, the scourge of receptionists and security guards everywhere.

Enough has been written about the unappealing methods and trickery in Moore’s ‘documentaries,’ and I’m in no doubt much of the narrative structure of Roger & Me is a fake construct. But taken purely as a film, it is not wholly without merit. I confess I was entertained throughout, despite my growing frustration with Moore himself, and you do get a definite feel for the devastation in Flint, particularly in the scenes of evictions featuring the Sheriff’s Deputy, Fred Ross.

This, however, is where the focus should have been all along, but unfortunately the film is not called Flint. At no point does Moore explain why he has especially demonised Mr. Smith, and he gives no cogent answer to the free market economic question posed by a GM lobbyist. The man in question, Tom Kay, asks the filmmaker why a company should be bound to provide jobs in a community when it is no longer viable in business terms. Moore’s only response is to poke fun at Kay during the closing credits, freezing a shot of the spokesman and revealing in captions that Kay himself had lost his job. For a filmmaker so convinced of his own superior intellect, one would expect he’d be smart enough not to make jokes about getting fired in a film about mass unemployment. But then again, maybe Mr. Moore isn’t that smart after all.