Roger & Me and Fahrenheit 9/11
My dad worked for a major business-equipment company for 30 years. He was a “customer services technician,” and it was his job to travel to businesses that owned equipment made by the company and fix broken machines. It was complicated, stressful work, and I remember how often he’d get paged in the middle of the night, how many overtime hours he used to put in, and how I got to hate the sound of his beeper. It was almost like being related to the weather; there’d be weekends with a 50 percent chance of Dad, but you always brought an umbrella just in case.
Around December of ’02, my dad started having serious problems with his back. The pain kept him home on what started off as sick time, then stretched into an extended leave, and then, as the months went by, became something resembling permanent. Doctors, surgeries, and medication failed to solve the problem, and by the summer of ’03, my father was forced to accept that his career with the company was over.
So then it became time to try and work out a settlement for the 10 to 15 years of work Dad would’ve had if he hadn’t gotten injured. It took them until last spring to finally settle everything, and in the end, Dad got screwed. While the loss of money hurt, what really stung was the humiliation. My father never called in sick, never dodged a call, never swiped office supplies. He wasn’t lazy, rude, or poorly motivated. And when the time came to give him the help he needed—hell, the help he goddamn deserved from these people he’d given so much of his life to—they called him a cheat and a liar, and they hired men to watch his house to make sure he wasn’t lifting heavy things off the record.
It’s common knowledge in American culture that big corporations are out to screw the little guy. We accept it as something that businesses just do to stay competitive; we may grouse about it from time to time, but like the intricacies of the legal system and the way the Academy Awards works, it’s the sort of ongoing injustice that’s easier to nod away than to do anything about it. I think that’s at least part of the reason Michael Moore pisses so many people off. He spends his time poking sticks into sores that won’t heal on their own. He may be self-aggrandizing and smug, but at least he reminds you it’s okay to be outraged. He practically demands it.
I’d never watched a Moore documentary before last weekend, for a lot of reasons—the biggest one being that I don’t usually watch documentaries. And he makes me nervous, okay? Not because I disagree with him politically (I’ve never really known enough about his politics to make the call one way or the other, although we both agree that George W. Bush was a scumfuck weasel, so that’s something), but because I’m basically a coward. Given the right circumstances, I’ll make a stand, even if past experience has taught me I’ll almost immediately regret it, but in general, I like to avoid conflict, and watching other people get mad at each other makes me squirm. Hearing how Moore browbeat Charlton Heston during a Bowling For Columbine interview crossed that one off my gotta-see list, and I had a general impression that hectoring, needling tone was present in all his films. Which is fine, but not for me. Better to watch Ninja III: The Domination for the fifth time than sully my pretty mind with such ugliness.
Still, with Moore’s latest, Capitalism: A Love Story in theaters, I thought it would be a nice time to finally suck it up and see something everyone I know saw back when it was really relevant. Last Sunday, I watched Roger & Me and Fahrenheit 9/11, and while neither made me a convert, both movies made me angry in all the right ways. They made me think of my dad, especially Roger & Me, and of the miserable, impotent rage that comes from being pushed roughly aside by powerful forces that tell you you’re weak for falling.
So, how did I find Roger and Fahrenheit? Roger is the better of the two, no question; it seems pointless to judge the latter as a “film” at all, because it’s less like an intentional artistic statement and more like the Ancient Mariner grabbing you by the lapel and demanding attention be paid. Fahrenheit is provocation, a cinematic poison-pen letter to an administration built on lies and contempt, and while it has some remarkably effective sequences, it’s ultimately too formless, too scattershot to hold up now. It’s not bad, and I was actually impressed at how reserved Moore seemed, given the criticism that’s been thrown at him; but what shtick he did do was hollow, padding the movie to a lumpy 2 hours and 2 minutes (as opposed to Roger’s nicely honed 90 minutes).
Roger is excellent, though. While Fahrenheit goes all over the place, from insinuations about the Bush family’s relationship with the Bin Ladens, to the fall of the World Trade Center, to the devastating consequences of the war in Iraq both at home and abroad, Roger focuses on a place—Flint, Michigan, Moore’s hometown—and what happens when Roger Smith, Chairman and CEO of General Motors, shuts down GM plants in Flint, costing 30,000 jobs. Moore charts the slow collapse of an entire urban environment, as the lost jobs lead to evictions (one of the movie’s strongest threads has a camera crew following Deputy Sheriff Fred Ross as he goes from house to house, posting notices; it’s a constant reminder that the city’s failure to revitalize itself has a devastating cost), a growing crime rate, and increasingly desperate attempts by the local government to convince the world that everything’s going just fine, thanks.
Moore pulls a few stunts here—one of those actually forms the backbone of the movie, as he repeatedly tries to get in touch with Smith to get answers about the plant closures and force Smith to acknowledge the effects his decisions have had on his former employees. But unlike, say, Moore’s attempts in Fahrenheit to get congressmen to enlist their children in the armed services, the stunts here actually add to the main point of the argument rather than distract from it. When Moore accosts some random senator on the street, it’s more embarrassing than galvanizing; when Moore is turned aside by increasingly brusque security personnel at GM headquarters, it’s a potent reminder of the disconnect between the men in the golden towers and the people on the streets below.
There’s also the fact that Moore doesn’t dominate Roger as much as he does Fahrenheit; he’s clearly the guiding force behind both, but while the former starts off with his personal history and relationship to Flint and GM, that history gives you a better sense of what’s at stake. During much of the film, the interviews he gets are framed with him off camera, only occasionally talking loud enough for us to hear him. He probably doesn’t spend that much more time onscreen in Fahrenheit, but the narration is overly leading (again, this is pointless to criticize, because Fahrenheit wasn’t meant to be subtle, or open to interpretation; I’m just mentioning it because it struck me after watching both films so close together), and he’s often on the screen with his interview subjects, sometimes even feeding them the answers he wants to hear.
Roger has its weaker moments. I thought the celebrity bits were funny but also irrelevant—yeah, we get it, Miss Michigan is kind of a dip, no real revelation there, and learning that Bob Eubanks is actually an asshole won’t change many lives. You could say, though, that those bits build a picture of a culture heavy on smiles and light on anything substantive behind them. And I loved how Moore was able to include larger perspective views on, say, the ill-fated AutoWorld (an indoor amusement park dedicated to the wonders of the automobile), while taking time to connect with locals like a woman who keeps and kills rabbits for food and profit.
That last section leads to one the movie’s most surprising and unpleasant scenes, when the woman (Rhonda Britton), after petting a rabbit and casually telling the camera she’s about to kill it (it won’t stop biting), proceeds to be as good as her word, bopping the animal to death with a length of pipe and then stripping it and gutting it without Moore ever cutting away. It’s grotesque and shocking, but it’s the sort of thing that makes its case without narration or emphasis. This is what this woman does now to keep her and her family eating, now that the plants are closed. This is what survival for her has been reduced to—keeping rabbits in cages so small their fur is stained with each other’s piss, and killing one every night for supper.
At its best, Fahrenheit still holds up; the section on Iraq is gut-wrenching, and Moore’s choice to follow Lila Lipscomb, a supporter of the Armed Services who started to question the necessity of the Iraq War when her son was killed serving in it, gives the latter half of the film a strong through-line. And really, no matter how much Moore overplays his hand in the first hour, it’s hard not to get angry all over again, seeing Bush, Cheney, and the rest of the stooges mug and smirk their way through the familiar bullshit. The movie mainly suffers from the fact that Moore’s early allegations of Saudi ties to the Bush family never really leads to anything, and more than that, the accusations are simply beside the point; what we actually know for certain is ugly and awful enough on its own.
In both Roger and Fahrenheit, it’s the people that Moore talks to that stick with you the longest. I think he tends to lose the thread some when he tries to go too big, however well justified his reasons for doing so might be. He works best when he stays close to the outrage that lies at the heart of his work, the righteous fury that makes even his wildest indulgences easier to accept. The reason I mentioned my dad earlier isn’t because I think his sufferings are comparable to the people in either of the documentaries I watched—he had a crummy time, but he managed to put away some money while he was working, and he and my mom aren’t starving. The reason I bring him up at all is because I’d forgotten about what happened to him. The whole incident just hit me out of the blue after I finished Roger & Me, and calling to ask his permission to mention it in this essay, I realized how little any of what he’d been going through had registered for me. Oh sure, I felt bad when I saw him and he said things weren’t going well, and I was always there to listen when he needed to talk, but my dad isn’t really a talking kind of guy. I doubt I could have changed what happened to him, but you know, I could’ve remembered it. I owe him that much. No matter what else you say about Michael Moore, no matter how easy it is to dismiss so much of his work, he doesn’t forget what happened, and he’s doing his best to make sure we don’t, either.