Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Prices Of Capitalism Explored By A Man And His Microphone: Roger & Me

The Good: Poignant, Funny, Well-Conceived, Well-Executed
The Bad: Not enough DVD features, Ultimately pointless
The Basics: When Flint, Michigan is devastated by GM's virtual withdrawal, Michael Moore goes on a quest for accountability from CEO Roger Smith.

Before Michael Moore cheesed off a bunch of red states by speaking truth to power and creating an argument linking the Neocon agenda, election fraud, influence peddling, outright lies and abuses of power with the Bush Administration and the Iraq War with Fahrenheit 9/11 (reviewed here!), he was a working class hero documenting the downfall of Flint, Michigan and General Motors under CEO Roger Smith. Perhaps the most amusing aspect of the shift away from Michael Moore by the working-class base (he did, after all, make a film suggesting gun control might be important after the Columbine incident) is that the values voters most offended by the allegations of Fahrenheit 9/11 tend to be the ones most hurt by corporate greed as illustrated in Roger & Me.

Roger & Me is a simple documentary wherein GM's massive layoffs of its plant in Flint, Michigan result in devastation to the local economy and thousands of unemployed workers are left desperate. Michael Moore, a resident of Flint, is deeply upset by the collapse of the local economy and the shady attempts to revitalize the locale after the withdrawal of GM. Distraught that American jobs have been outsourced, Moore does all he can to hold CEO Roger Smith accountable. The only way Moore knows to do that is to hunt down Smith and attempt to confront him with direct questions about his actions.

Roger & Me is the ultimate vendetta in search of an apology in all of american cinema. Moore wants an explanation for the people of Flint, Michigan. He wants to raise awareness about the human cost of outsourcing and the lives it destroys. And at the end of the day, Moore seems to want an apology from Smith. Even that will make the film worthwhile.

Michael Moore becomes a dogged investigator, first establishing the causalities needed to make his quest seem reasonable. The first half of Roger & Me chronicles the rise and fall of General Motors in Flint, Michigan. It explores the lives of the citizens of Flint who are forced to do such things as sell rabbits for meat (and by extension other citizens there are gamely consuming them), evict citizens from their homes on Christmas Eve, and leave the area in search of greener pastures.

The latter half of the film then sets to dogging Smith and Moore is relentless in trying to acquire his human target. He is seeking an element of corporate responsibility that the stockholder nor the courts will ever hold Smith to because GM did not lose money and despite the results of the layoffs, Smith did not commit any crimes by shuddering the Flint plant.

What works well in Roger & Me is that the heartbreaking scenes of the human cost of high capitalism are tempered by the ironic and insanely human quest for accountability. In that way, Moore becomes a Quixotic working-class hero fighting against the Reagan era of blind greed. His sense of reason and desire for a very human measure of responsibility becomes noble when the viewer is confronted with the primitive regression an American city undergoes when the mainstream life support is cut. Granted, Americans could stand to know more about where their food comes from (and it can even be done in entertaining ways, as with Fast Food Nation), but outside the fraction of the population that still lives on family farms and kills their own food there, Americans are people who go to the store, the freezer or the restaurant for their food. It's a convenience of modern life to not have to slay your own animals for meat and watching such things as the rabbit being skinned on camera is eye opening for the way people who were once a backbone of conventional America are tossed to the proverbial wolves when capitalism wrecks them in favor of the free market.

In Stupid White Men (reviewed here!), Moore notes that far more people take umbrage with the rabbit being skinned for food on screen than the sight of a young black man gunned down in the streets and I understand where his concern for that comes from. However, the bulk of citizens in the United States have watched television programs where the murder of human beings (usually through gun violence) is commonplace. Indeed, the whole network news notion of "If it bleeds, it leads" is based on the idea that violence captivates. It is entertaining. If you don't want to see people shooting one another on television, you can turn it off; if you want to eat meat and you see where it comes from, it's something that sticks with you. Seeing people whose former fortunes allowed them to simply go to the refrigerator for food resorting to skinning their rabbits for meat is ultimately dehumanizing. It is that dehumanization that Moore rails against. It is that catastrophic failure of the American Ideal in favor of Capitalist vision that Moore seeks to expose in Roger & Me.

And it's almost entirely successful.

Where Roger & Me fails is in its imbalance between factual documentary-making and the attempt to be entertaining. Moore starts off with a keen wit and a load of fact and soon the balance of the film is entirely documentary, loaded with statistics, facts and concepts designed to win the viewer over to his argument about the folly of capitalism. But then when he starts his quest to truly nail Roger Smith to the wall with ballsy questions and the demand that the CEO take accountability to gutting an American city, he pursues it with an eagerness and style that is too close to sensationalism. It's hard for the viewer to reconcile both halves of the movie as part of the same whole.

On DVD, the film looks great (poor quality bits have more to do with the original film's origins than the transfer), but there are few extras to make this an essential DVD. There is a commentary track, but it is not terribly illuminating. There is also the theatrical preview which is fine. I guess I wanted more from the movie and the DVD.

But it's certainly worthwhile in its own right and Moore makes a good argument and (for the most part) he makes it well.

For other documentaries, please check out my reviews of:
Why We Fight
This Film Is Not Yet Rated
The Fog Of War


For other movie reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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