It was a bit disarming to me that the cover of the DVD case for Michael Moore’s 1986 documentary Roger & Me featured a quote from Siskel & Ebert calling the film “a triumphant comedy.” After 91 minutes of archival footage featuring people getting evicted from their homes cross-cut with news coverage of the moneyed class celebrating their life of decadence, it wasn’t laughter that was stirred from within me. When a 21st Century lens is applied to this Reagan-era social documentary, one realizes how dire the situation depicted in Roger & Me is and how it serves as a microcosm for the increasing inequity that would soon impact the entire United States economy.
Moore’s first documentary portrays his quest for an interview with Roger Smith, the chairman of General Motors in Detroit, Michigan. After taking over at a time of peak profitability, Smith issues the closing of dozens of GM plants in the U.S. in favor of lower cost facilities in Mexico or abroad. The effect is devastating for communities like Moore’s hometown of Flint, Michigan where his friends and family have worked on the assembly line for generations. Along with the above-mentioned footage of evictions we also see Moore’s interviews with lower-ranking GM executives who stutter around direct questions, and a sub-plot about well-meaning government projects that wildly fail at their attempts to revitalize the devastated Flint economy. Ultimately Moore’s quest is one for truth – what is the real reason that Roger Smith is closing U.S. plants and does it make him inhuman for doing so?
When Roger & Me was first released at the Toronto International Film Festival in 1989 it was widely praised by many for its astute satire, and lambasted by other critics for misleading viewers with non-linear editing. Pauline Kael called the film “shallow and facetious, a piece of gonzo demagoguery that made me feel cheap for laughing.” There is no doubt that Moore has a pro-worker, anti-corporate slant; he goes through great pains to explain his background in a family of assembly-line workers and he consistently refers back to the flourishing Flint he knew as a kid. So does his editing trickery – like cross-cutting a Roger Smith speech with footage of a family getting evicted on Christmas – diminish his thesis?
Roger & Me would not at all be out of place amongst the documentary films of the 21st Century. Our constantly connected world has made journalistic bias the norm; every time a news item breaks, one does not have to search far for a take on the event that supports their particular world view. For better or worse, Moore was one of the pioneering filmmakers who made objectivity irrelevant. Moore does not seek to deliver all the facts and let the audience decide for themselves; his goal is to persuade the viewer to see the situation from his perspective.
Throughout all of Moore’s films, pathos has always been the strongest element of his argumentation. In Roger & Me he manages to find subjects of all backgrounds and ethnicities that are being hurt by the plant closings. He paints Flint as a universally relatable small-town (even though its population in 1990 was over 140,000) so that every audience member can imagine his or her own community going through similar devastation. He contrasts the despair of individual families with Christmas and the 4th of July – holidays that are commonly affiliated with jubilant celebrations. No matter the economic situation of the viewer, Moore ensures the audience identifies with the workers and not the unaffected white collar community.
Ethos, or credibility, is also a strong point in Moore’s argumentation, but mostly in the way he destroys the reputation of his opposition. He never attempts to portray himself as a subject matter expert. He’s just an average guy from the Midwest who couldn’t hack it in San Francisco and wants to show the world the pain his friends are experiencing. He strategically disassembles the credibility of his opposition by catching them in their own lies or leaving the camera on them long enough to catch every bead of sweat that drips from their forehead. He even annihilates the lovable reputation of former GM spokesman Pat Boone by filming him reciting a filthy, sexist joke when he’s offstage.
Moore is much less interested in the logos aspect of his argument, reciting a few unemployment stats, but more interested in an emotional appeal than a logic one. He wants the viewer to identify with each and every family in the movie while viewing the corporate cronies and lobbyists as unsympathetic bullies. Are ethos and pathos enough to make his case? For Roger & Me, the answer is yes, especially when those images of people getting forcibly removed from their own homes could be seen in any U.S. community two decades after Moore’s documentary first hit theatres.
Bottom Line: Roger & Me is a persuasive argument, not objective journalism, and Moore succeeds in making his case.