by Zachary Preucil
Written for Liberal Arts Seminar: Film & Politics (LARTS 490, Fall 2011)
A film with a narrator draws us by instinct. It immediately becomes more personal, as if we are being told the story by a friend, as opposed to being part of a mass of onlookers viewing impersonal events taking place on an intangible screen. Yet with the recounting of any narrative, we must call the reliability of the narrator into question, no matter how persuasive or believable the story may seem. The films Roger & Me by Michael Moore and Forrest Gump by Robert Zemeckis demonstrate various manifestations of the problem of unreliable narrators.
Roger & Me takes us to the suffering town of Flint, Michigan during a time of economic turmoil in the mid-1980s following poor business decisions made by Roger Smith, then-chairman of General Motors. The economic success of General Motors in previous decades made Flint a “company town,” where an overwhelming majority of its citizens worked for General Motors—including, we quickly discover, most of Moore’s family. Now, with Smith’s decision to relocate to Mexico, hundreds of jobs are cut, and the town falls into a severe economic depression. We follow a local sheriff as he evicts families day after day, and we witness the pathetic attempts of the local government to get the town back on its feet. Yet Moore’s portrayal of the people on both sides of the economic spectrum casts his reliability into question. The citizens beneath the poverty line that we are introduced to are woefully inept, while the members of the upper class are made to look exceedingly insensitive to the plight of the lower-class citizens. And encompassing it all is Moore’s alleged “search” for Roger Smith. As the film unfolds, it becomes apparent that Moore cannot be trying all that hard to secure an interview with the disgraced General Motors chairman, revealing that he doesn’t even know where to direct a letter and offering little more than a Chuck E. Cheese card to the security officers that stop him at the headquarters of General Motors. While the heart-wrenching scenes of the victims of this economic crisis certainly elicit our sympathy, we are forced to question Moore’s motives. Is the crisis in Flint really as bad as he wants us to believe? Are the portrayals of affected citizens accurate, or are they the only examples he could find? And most importantly, how does he expect us to react after seeing the film? Is there anything we can really do?
Forrest Gump similarly causes us to question the narration, but in a different way. The movie is fiction, or historical fiction at the very most. Forrest Gump, a mentally handicapped character who views life with an astonishing simplicity, finds himself involved with a number of historical events and public figures, ranging from Elvis to the Watergate scandal, embodying the scope of American politics over a nearly thirty-year time span. Yet the unrealistic aspects of this depiction undermine his simple narrative: Forrest Gump did not cause such pivotal events as the Watergate scandal, so how can we possibly believe his presentation of it? Gump’s political narrative is also contrasted by the story of his love, Jenny, who represents the narrative of the American counterculture as she progresses from hippie in the 1960s to disco drug-addict in the 1970s, eventually becoming one of the first victims of AIDS in the 1980s. Jenny’s story better evokes a sense of nostalgia that fosters a personal connection to the audience at the time of the film’s release, and in turn makes Forrest’s mythologizing of history more tangible. The interweaving of these two story lines generates a similar questioning effect as Roger & Me, but with a critical difference: Michael Moore does not want us to question his (apparently) nonfictional narration, while Robert Zemeckis adamantly wants us to doubt Forrest’s fictional tale. The questions we must then ask ourselves as audience members are which aspects of the films specifically cause this effect, whether intentionally or unintentionally; and, more importantly, what we are supposed to gain from it.
Moore makes his bias apparent from the start of his documentary, as he details his family’s history with General Motors: “As I grew older, I discovered my entire family had worked for GM: Grandparents, parents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins. Everyone but me. My uncle Laverne was in the Great Flint Sit-Down Strike.” He then continues to enforce the idea that Flint was a “company town” and his apparent aversion to it, stating that “the assembly line wasn’t for me. My heroes were the Flint people who’d escaped the life in the factory.” Moore’s subsequent story of his fallout with a magazine in San Francisco raises further questions as to his reliability—are we, as an audience, supposed to take seriously a person who not only makes it clear that he is on one side of the issue at hand, but displays a certain recklessness as well?
Forrest Gump’s initial unreliability, on the other hand, does not stem from a personal bias but from a lack of mental capacity. From the audience’s first introduction to him as he sits on his famous park bench in Savannah, it is apparent that he suffers from some form of mental retardation, so we instinctively question his narration. This questioning is further reinforced in Forrest’s subsequent descriptions of commonly known aspects of culture such as the Ku Klux Klan, the leader of which, Nathan Bedford Forrest, was his namesake: “They’d all dress up in their robes and their bedsheets and act like a bunch of ghosts or spooks or something. They’d even put bedsheets on their horses and ride around.” This naive description only reminds us that Forrest does not have a sense of reality. Forrest’s innocent take on life takes on a new dimension, however, when he begins to interact with—and ultimately have an influence on—history. The “young man” who “had him a guitar case,” who stays with Forrest and his mother, is in fact Elvis Presley, for whom Forrest inspires his famous dance in “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog.” Forrest’s later allusion to Presley’s controversial death is again reminiscent of his misunderstanding: “Some years later, that handsome young man who they called ‘The King,’ well, he sung too many songs, had himself a heart attack or something.” From these opening impressions, we have cause to doubt not only Forrest’s narration, but also the events he describes. We know that what we are seeing is historical fiction, but this historical fiction told under the guise of a person who doesn’t have a full understanding of history undermines its veracity. As with Moore, we question the narrator right away; so how are we supposed to interpret the remainder of the film?
Both films attempt to bridge this distance by employing nostalgia. Moore contrasts the Flint of the past with the Flint of the present with images and descriptions of General Motors in its heyday, stating that “this was Flint as I remember, where every day was a great day.” Later on in the film, he portrays the city officials as desperately attempting to reconstruct this nostalgic past as they build luxury hotels and other tourist attractions with the hopes that increased tourism will bring Flint back out of its of economic turmoil. While it is not as easy for an audience to relate to this nostalgia, unless audience members are from Flint, it further reinforces the magnitude of the economic crisis and evokes a certain degree of sympathy. The nostalgia apparent in Forrest Gump is manifested in a different way but achieves a similar effect. Considering that the audience that would be watching the film for the first time would have experienced several, if not all, of the political and cultural events taking place, images of such reminiscence draw us closer to Forrest’s questionable narrative. We remember the often tumultuous political events of the time period but even more so what transpired beneath the surface—hippies, rock ‘n’ roll, drugs, and disco. Thus, the movie becomes more than just a narrative—it becomes personal.
But it is within this nostalgic reminiscence that we realize that the narrators are choosing what we are feeling nostalgic about. Forrest’s narrative takes us through a crash-course in American history from 1954-1982, often compressing certain historical events to fit into the flow of the movie. We essentially see a mythologizing of this time period—the way that the majority of popular culture perceived these historical events as opposed to an in-depth picture of how they actually transpired. Furthermore, tragic events are effectively glossed over with the humorous tone of Forrest’s narration. The assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy—two extremely tragic events of the 1960s—are summed up in only a few sentences: “Sometime later, for no particular reason, somebody shot that nice young President when he was ridin’ in his car. And a few years after that, somebody shot his little brother, too, only he was in a hotel kitchen. It must be hard being brothers. I wouldn’t know.” Even the horror of Vietnam, where Forrest serves for a period of time, is unrealistic: “We were always lookin’ for this guy named Charlie,” Forrest states, a far cry from the horrors of the war emphasized in such films as Apocalypse Now.
Moore may not be presenting a myth of history, but, like Gump, he isn’t providing a full picture of the events; he, too, is choosing what he wants us to see. While he does demonstrate the realistic situation of the poor through his presentation of numerous evictions, the individuals he focuses on in-depth do not seem to be characteristic of an impoverished person in Flint during this time. It is difficult to believe that most Flint residents have to resort to slaughtering rabbits or donating their own plasma for food; in fact, it is difficult to believe that there are people who do these things other than these individuals that Moore unfairly selects to be representatives of a social class. Moore’s portrayal of the upper class—the “antagonists” of his documentary—is similarly undermined as he poses leading questions. In one instance, a woman tells Moore that she believes people should “try to find another job, or do something else in training, or something”—to which he replies, “You think a lot of people are being lazy?” Here, Moore’s leap from vague reprimand to definitive label is another example of his unfair portrayal of the dwindling upper class in the town. As we observe this typification of the social classes in Roger & Me, we again find ourselves questioning his reliability. How do we know that the situation in Flint is really this bad when our only evidence strains Moore’s credibility? Could it be that Moore is in fact exaggerating the situation just to make an entertaining exposé of the alleged corruption in General Motors?
But perhaps asking these types of questions is our only means of understanding the true intentions of such controlling narrators. By doubting Moore’s motives, we realize that he really is trying to control how we shape our views of the situations presented in his documentary, while applying the same scrutiny to Forrest Gump allows us to see that its director is simply trying to entertain us whilst presenting a unique and thought-provoking viewpoint on recent American history. Essentially, our interpretation of these films has to come from our own perspectives. We recognize the mythification, we relate to the sense of nostalgia, and we see that the characters telling their respective stories are not telling us all the facts—for whatever reason. And so, when we walk out of the theater, we are left with a distinct impression that is difficult to achieve with other forms of storytelling. No matter how we feel about the issues presented, we feel they have spoken to us in some way, because we are left to draw our own conclusions. It is this perspective that allows for our most thorough understanding of the politics in Roger & Me and Forrest Gump—and that’s nothing but the truth.
Roger & Me. Prod. Michael Moore. By Michael Moore. Dir. Michael Moore. Dog Eat Dog Films, Warner Bros. Pictures, 1989.
Forrest Gump. Dir. Robert Zemeckis. By Eric Roth. Perf. Tom Hanks, Robin Wright, Gary Sinise, Sally Field, and Mykelti Williamson. Paramount Pictures, 1994.