American Politics Through Film and Fiction Term Paper

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Roger and Me: Automobile Industry

Like All the President's Men, this work is a departure from fiction in film and in novels. Rather than portraying fictional characters in a contrived plot, "Roger and Me" takes us into the lives of actual men and women dealing with the all-too-real problems of the decline of the United States as a world industrial power.

The focus is on the automobile industry, in particular, on one of the early centers of that industry, Flint, Michigan. Major automakers like General Motors have for years been cutting back on production and employment. Now, many of the older plants that have been running at reduced capacity are being closed for good and their workers let go permanently.

Because Flint was heavily dependent on auto making, the effects on the local economy are disastrous. Flint seems to be in the process of turning into a postindustrial ghost town, but the agonies endured by its ordinary people make for a riveting drama.

In stark contrast to the grim realities of the little people are the lives, attitudes, and actions of the auto-industry elite: the pious but elusive Roger Smith and lesser GM

officials; the privileged ladies on the golf course discoursing on the welfare system and its abuses; and local political leaders, who sometimes seem to be seeking solutions to Flint's problems and sometimes merely to be looking for palliatives -- from entertainment to religion -- to take people's minds off their realities.

This contrast between the situations of the relatively powerless masses and the more powerful elites is the stuff of which social satire is made. Chronicling the filmmaker's attempts to interview Roger Smith about Flint's problems and including footage of daily reality in Flint, "Roger and Me" is sometimes hilarious, sometimes outrageous, and always insightful.

As you watch this film, think about a central theme that the exercise of political and economic power (it is sometimes difficult to draw a line between the two) affects everyday life.

Key inclusion elements - Did the events in this film more or less have to happen, or did they become inevitable because of decisions that could have been made differently? Could this film be a preview of what awaits much of the rest of this country?

Michael Moore's Film Docudrama Roger and Me (1989): A Portent of Painful Realities

The film docudrama Roger and Me (1989), directed by filmmaker Michael Moore, who also directed the docudramas Bowling for Columbine (2002) and Fahrenheit 911 (2004), focused on the aftermath, for people living in Flint, Michigan (Michael Moore's own home town) of the 1988 closing the General Motors (GM) car manufacturing plant there, the first and the oldest GM plant in America. Since many Flint residents had worked at the plant, sometimes all their lives (as, in many cases, their parents and grandparents had also done) and since Flint, Michigan, possessed little or no other infrastructure, the closing, in Flint, of GM's oldest plant caused sudden, disastrous, levels of unemployment related hardship throughout Flint.

GM's decision to close the plant caused problems even for those not working there: widespread closings of shops, restaurants, and businesses. Streets of nothing but boarded-up shops and businesses were shown, illustrating effects of residents' no longer being able to afford to support them. Long-term residents, not all formerly employed by GM were shown moving en masse from Flint, where they had always lived, perhaps for generations, because they had lost all hope for the future. At one point in the film, so many U-Haul and other trucks had been reserved, by those evicted from apartments or moving away, that no truck was available for a woman who, with her young family, had been evicted from her apartment on Christmas. In these ways and others, then, Moore illustrated how the plant closing had reverberations for citizens, businesses, and jobs outside the plant as well.

Cutbacks in basic city services like garbage collection occurred, allowing rats and other vermin to run rampant in parts of the city. Further, individual development of (sometimes questionable) "cottage industries" (like a woman's stomach-turning new livelihood of skinning rabbits and selling their meat) to survive, starkly illustrated the costs, in human misery, of GM's decision. Moore's footage of unemployed Flint residents (such as, for example, Moore's laid-off high school friend, evicted from his apartment and despairing for his future) showed, in concrete human suffering, how the exercise of political and economic power can affect everyday life, even when such effects are unintentional.

Moore's docudrama also pointed out (albeit in a playful way) the inaccessibility of corporate VIP's like Smith himself, based on the director's inability, despite repeated cross-country attempts for three years, to secure a face-to-face interview with Smith. Extreme inaccessibility of such corporate decision-makers, especially to "little people" their decisions affect, points out not only how political and economic decisions impact everyday life, but the indifference of corporate America to individual human suffering.

In one face-to-face interview Moore did acquire, with one of Flint's remaining GM executives (who, as the end credits note, was later laid off from GM) emphasized that corporate America's responsibility, in its own eyes if not those of the "little people" was to survive economically. GM's demonstrating loyalty to Flint appeared ridiculous to this executive. General Motors, he declared, had no responsibility to Flint, even though its first plant was there. The executive seemed to find Moore's implied suggestion that GM might owe something to Flint a mixture of naive and preposterous. GM's responsibility was to protect the "bottom line"; that was all Smith was doing by closing the plant. This interview footage offered a stark look at General Motors corporate mentality: In Mexico, China, India, and other places, labor costs were cheaper and General Motors could save a great deal of money on production costs by closing plants in the United States and building other plants in such areas overseas.

The beginnings of corporate outsourcing, as illustrated within Roger and Me, beginning in the 1980's, have, unfortunately, become all too common American corporate practices, in the interests of protecting profits. Over the decades, such practices have cost millions of American jobs, and shrunk the middle class. Former manufacturing employees have had to replace well-paying industry jobs with low-paying service jobs (e.g., at fast food restaurants). Such jobs do not pay middle-class wages: therefore, individuals drop from the middle class. All of this has led, little by little, to the weakening of the United States as a world politi8cal and economic force, and will likely continue to do so.

Roger and Me points out (and portends, for a future that has now, unfortunately, arrived) ways that politics; economics; capitalism, and greed can combine, as with this plant closing, to effectively permanently degrade the lives of everyday individuals. Even when confronted, however, the GM executive Moore interviewed remained more focused on the GM "bottom line" than anything else. More importantly, the film portended many other corporate outsourcing practices. Manufacturing jobs of the kind eliminated in Flint that year have never returned. Additional widespread outsourcing by U.S. enterprises has negatively impacted the United States economy over time. America imports a great deal from Japan and other places (e.g., cars; electronics) yet exports very few such products overseas. That has led to an increased U.S. trade deficit; thus creating a much softer dollar (especially against European and Asian currencies) and weakening America economically, politically, and otherwise: very likely in serious and irreparable ways.

Scenes from Roger and Me illustrate how top-level corporate decisions, such as GM's decision to close its Flint plant, hurt individuals at the bottom of the chain. Among miseries of individual Flint citizens were daily evictions, from apartments and houses, of former GM workers who could no longer pay their rent. Widespread closings of shops and businesses occurred in Flint, since residents could no longer support them. Flint residents were shown moving en masse from the city where they have always lived, for generations, because they had lost hope for the future. Cutbacks in city services like garbage collection; and development of (sometimes questionable) "cottage industries" (like one woman's stomach-turning enterprise of skinning rabbits and selling their meat), starkly illustrated the costs, in human and other misery, of the plant's demise. Moore's footage of the many unemployed residents (like Moore's laid-off high school friend, who had been kicked out of his apartment and despaired, now, of any future in Flint) show how exercise of political and economic power can indeed very harshly affect everyday life, even when such effects are unintentional.

In Roger and Me, footage of Michael Moore's three-year cross-country chase of the elusive GM CEO Roger Smith (a pursuit that, while never yielding up Roger himself, revealed much about his privileged, opulent, and sheltered lifestyle), juxtaposed against footage of the Christmas Eve apartment eviction of a Flint family, points out the potentially extraordinary price, in human suffering, of these types of corporate decisions that reverberate lower-down. Moore's repeated futile attempts to interview Smith himself, the architect of…[continue]

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