First-time documentary filmmaker Michael Moore tours the town of his youth, Flint, Michigan, home of General Motors and the American economic downturn of the 1980's in microcosm.
Not since the Oscar-winning The Times Of Harvey Milk in 1984 has America produced a documentary which will cross over from a guaranteed audience of liberal do-gooders to a wider public united by nothing other than a love of home, a desire to see fair play and an appetite for laughter.
Michael Moore is writer, producer and director of Roger & Me. He is also a campaigning print journalist, here making his film debut with no training behind the camera but a lot of goodwill and a budget funded by well-wishers and a weekly bingo game he organised in his home town of Flint, Michigan. Flint is the hero of this film: it was where the world's biggest private employer, General Motors, was born, where the Union of Auto Workers was founded in 1937 after a sit-down strike, and which enjoyed tremendous prosperity and civic pride in the 50s when Michael Moore was a little boy, about the only one in Flint who grew up to avoid a GM pay-packet. Moore's family snapshots and old GM footage summon those golden years, before it all went horribly wrong.
The villain of the piece is the Chairman of General Motors, Roger Smith. As the first breezes of recession began to blow, he closed down the GM factories in Flint and transferred the jobs to Mexico where the wages were lower. Out of Flint's population of 150,000, 35,000 were made redundant and the town began to die. Moore's brief is simple: to chart the decline, and to cajole Roger Smith at least to visit Flint and ponder the human consequences of a boardroom decision. Repeatedly turned away at the door, fobbed off by flunkeys and given the old soft soap by PR smoothies, Moore is undaunted. Bearlike of build but with a terrier's snout and inquisitive eyes, he comments on his vain quest for the slippery Roger Smith with the mordant self-deprecation and nose for life's ironies of a Garrison Keillor or a Midwestern Woody Allen.
Where Roger & Me works particularly well is in the juxtaposition of telling incongruities, cutting away, for example, from Roger Smith's sentimental and platitudinous Christmas address to his employees to an eviction being served on a hapless citizen of Flint for non-payment of rent by the Sheriff along with rat-catching and social work, the only booming employment in town. That such a stark contrast of fortunes does not labour the obvious is down to Moore's unfailingly light touch, seeing the humour in just about any situation without shirking the harsh reality underneath. "This film cannot be shown within the city of Flint," he tells us in the closing credits. "All the movie theaters have closed."
An affecting, impressive debut from a filmmaker with an innate taste for modern America's clashes of conscience. An important document.