Copyright 1989 Bergen Record Corp.
An Automaker Runs Roughshod Over The American Dream December 20, 1989
Diana Maychick

It's Christmas Eve in the heartland, but it's no longer a wonderful life.

Auto-company layoffs have turned General Motors' company town, Flint, Mich., into a Pottersville. The rat population now exceeds the resident population of 150,000, many of whom just pick up stakes and leave when they lose their jobs. More than 30,000 people are without work.

Searching for angels to watch over the remaining stalwarts, dim-witted town fathers invite chirpy Anita Bryant, hollow Pat Boone, and phony televangelist Robert Schuller to soothe the despondent unemployed.

The erstwhile celebrities say things like "Turn your hurt into a halo," and "Get up in the morning, and get your own motor going." Their combined efforts would probably have persuaded Jimmy Stewart to go ahead and commit suicide in the Frank Capra Christmas classic, "It's a Wonderful Life," but the Flint survivors prove to be a stronger, flintier bunch.

"Roger and Me," a rascally, anticapitalist documentary about the erosion of the American dream, has won respect at a number of international film festivals. Last week, it was named Best Documentary of the Year by the Los Angeles Film Critics.

Flint-born filmmaker Michael Moore spends the entire movie stalking General Motors Chairman Roger Smith to implore him to visit Flint. When he ultimately nails the executive at a company Christmas party, the denuded Santa Claus reads a tinny statement of holiday good wishes to his vastly diminished rank and file.

That's about as close to old Rog as Moore ever gets, and the film maker plays the encounter brilliantly.

Moore has already toured the stately mansions of Grosse Point looking for his prey. He's been near, but not inside, the elevator to Smith's office suite at GM headquarters in Detroit.

But when he finally gets the opportunity to barge up to the CEO with his ragtag camera crew, Moore is persistent, yet polite. At just the right decibel of ingratiating Midwestern twang, Moore steadfastly questions Smith about his decision to produce cars with a cheaper labor pool in Mexico.

The founding editor of the alternative newspaper Flint Voice and a onetime editor of the liberal magazine Mother Jones, Moore personifies radical journalism softened by regionalism. He's pesky more than confrontational, so there are no blowups in the film, except for a rash on Smith's face, which makes him look perpetually itchy.

But Moore goes for the jugular anyway. With a great deal of irony, he cross-cuts the official GM Christmas message with scenes of Sheriff Fred Ross evicting yet another unemployed auto worker.

At this house, a child forlornly follows a decorated pine tree from living room to curb. The middle-class Flint street is already crowded with the family's dispossessions, as the sheriff, a former auto worker, congratulates himself for accomplishing the eviction before Christmas Day.

A personal indictment of corporate America and how it sold out Moore's family and friends, "Roger and Me" studiously avoids impartiality.

You have to forgive the guy though. In the end, his fervent, left-wing political agenda is only the wheel that steers the movie. Its engine resides in the quirky, hilarious interviews with apolitical Flint folk who are just trying to get by.

My favorite, a strange, gleeful woman on food stamps, augments her income by raising bunnies and selling them either as pets or meat, stewers or fryers, your choice. With a profound sense of enterprise, she deftly skins one bunny right before the eyes of the squirming film maker. Watch how careful she is to preserve the fur, with which she hopes to make a coat.

In another scene, a thin young man who could be her soul mate rotely recites by rote the operating schedule for the Flint Plasma Center, where he stands in line to sell his blood.

Neither one would ever leave Flint. It's sacred to them; it's home.

It may not turn out to be a wonderful life for either one, but Moore has certainly used the folks from his hometown to make a wonderful movie.

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