You would think by the stir accompanying first-time filmmaker Michael Moore’s Roger & Me last year that he had introduced his own DeLorean. First, the low-budget documentary about autoworker layoffs in Flint, Mich., was a surprise hit, hauling in $5.5 million at the box office in its first two months. Then came the backlash: Journalists took Moore to task for misleading audiences about key events in Flint’s decline, setting off a debate about the film’s accuracy and honesty that still continues.
Moore’s ostensible mission in the movie is to wrangle an interview with General Motors chairman Roger Smith, whose company closed 11 U.S. factories and laid off 30,000 workers. Moore wants to go one-on-one with the guy he holds responsible for ravaging his hometown. But the elusive Smith proves to be little more than a ploy as Moore takes us for his own eccentric tour of Flint, exploring the desperate foibles of folks trying to cope with the creeping decay of their town.
The odd thing is that while Moore has styled himself as a working-class hero, he ends up mocking the very people he claims to be championing. Wearing a baseball cap and a smirk, he comes across like a rumpled, left-wing David Letterman. While his shtick is entertaining — and may explain the movie’s success — it reduces his subjects to caricatures: a woman raises ”rabbits or bunnies for pets or meat”; ex-autoworkers retrain as fashion ”color consultants.” One by one they’re set up as straight men to Moore’s routine.
Then there are Moore’s well-documented factual fudges, which he uses to make Flint’s decline seem even more dire (though it’s hardly necessary). For example, when Ronald Reagan arrives to take some laid-off workers to lunch, Moore never lets on that this happened before Reagan was elected president and several years before the Flint plants were closed.
Roger does manage to offer some affecting scenes. A long pan from a car window across blocks of huge abandoned homes and trashed lots to the tune of the Beach Boys’ ”Wouldn’t It Be Nice” is a simple and harrowing picture of devastation. These moments add some feeling to this otherwise snide, slick effort. With all its flaws, Roger is still worth watching, and the intimacy of the documentary format translates well to the small screen. But viewers who expect a thoughtful exploration of the problems of the unemployed should note that Moore called his movie Roger & Me. And that Roger Smith barely appears.