Film. Directed by Michael Moore.1989. 91 minutes. Documentary chronicling the efforts of the world’s largest corporation, General Motors, as it turns its hometown of Flint, Michigan, into a ghost town.
“First, close eleven plants in the U.S., then open eleven in Mexico where you pay the workers 70¢ an hour. Then use the money you’ve saved building cars in Mexico to take over other companies — preferably high tech firms and weapons manufacturers. Next, tell the union you’re broke and they happily agree to give back a couple billion dollars in wage cuts. You then take that money from the workers and eliminate their jobs by building more foreign factories. Roger Smith was a true genius.”
This is filmmaker Michael Moore describing the business strategy of General Motors’ then-chairman, Roger Smith. Roger and Me chronicles Michael Moore’s long quest to confront Smith with the human consequences of his business decisions on Moore’s hometown of Flint, Michigan, where GM eliminated 30,000 jobs. You can find the film in the comedy section at your local video store. And it is a comedy, with a Detective Columbo-like Moore relentlessly pursuing Smith and encountering one ludicrous GM evasion after another. But the film’s laughs are squeezed from the sorrow and outrage we also experience as Moore juxtaposes the deterioration of workers’ lives with the empty-headed patter of Flint’s elite, and the Pat Boones, Anita Bryants, and assorted hucksters who troop through town. Moore interviews a GM spokesman who is indignant that Moore would dare suggest that GM owes anything to the workers who built the company. General Motors is in business solely to make a profit, he insists, plain and simple. Capitalism 101. (In the credits we learn that the PR man also loses his job.)
The film ends with Moore cutting back and forth between Roger Smith offering pious-sounding platitudes at a GM Christmas party and the wrenching eviction of a Flint family on Christmas eve. To the extent that a key goal of teaching about globalization is to lay bare its human dimensions, this is a valuable classroom resource. However, an equally important goal is to encourage students to reflect on alternatives. The film’s nostalgia for an American society based on the mass production of automobiles reveals a key limitation of Roger and Me.
A British film that complements Roger and Me is Brassed Off, starring the brilliant Pete Postlethwaite. It may be a bit too slow or simply odd for most high school students, but at least rent to watch yourself. Like Roger and Me it’s a humorous, if heartbreaking, look at the consequences of “downsizing” — in this case, Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government closing profitable, and heavily unionized, coal pits in Yorkshire. The film explores the miners’ travails through the fortunes of the town’s brass band.
(Rated ‘R’ for a bit of foul language and the on-camera butchering of a rabbit.)