The Big One

Gambit Weekly

DIRECTED BY: Michael Moore

REVIEWED: 05-03-98

Michael Moore rocketed to fame in 1989 with his confrontational documentary Roger & Me, in which the filmmaker tried to meet with General Motors CEO Roger Smith to explain what automotive production layoffs had done to Moore's hometown of Flint, Mich. Subsequently, Moore made a television series called TV Nation and then wrote the best-selling Downsize This, a humorous but studied attack on corporate irresponsibility and government collusion. Now Moore is back on the big screen with The Big One, a documentary about his 47-city author's tour to promote his book. As the author/filmmaker travels from town to town, he routinely tries to make contact with working-class people facing the uncertainties of the contemporary American workplace. And just as routinely, Moore tries to confront those bosses he thinks are insensitive to their workers' rights and welfare. In this regard, The Big One is a revisitation of the comedic guerrilla style Moore invented for Roger & Me.

In his promotional journey across America, Moore visits with laid-off candy manufacturing workers, explores the government subsidies to the Pillsbury Corporation, encourages the union activities of Borders Books & Music employees, makes a series of rousing appearances on college campuses, and challenges Nike CEO Phil Knight to open a shoe factory in Flint. And whereas it's altogether fair to observe that we are in the midst of an economic restructuring far more complicated than Moore is willing to acknowledge, along the way he does make important points about cruel aspects of contemporary corporate practice.

Indeed, Americans are enjoying an almost unrivaled era of prosperity with unemployment at record lows, but all the while, the largest employer in America is Manpower Incorporated, a supplier of temporary labor. Employee security, in other words, is not reflected by the low unemployment rates. American corporations, moreover, have embraced a culture of greed that is unconscionable. Repeatedly, companies close highly profitable operations on American soil and relocate manufacturing to Third World countries in pursuit of even greater profits. Despite record earnings, for instance, the Milwaukee-based company Johnson Controls relocates its production to Mexico, where labor can be found for less than one dollar per hour. Meanwhile, at the same time that national Republicans and Democrats alike combine to "end welfare as we know it," government subsidies to big business continue unabated. Moore points out that three times as many government dollars go to corporations as into welfare programs. And while 20 percent of America's children continue to live in poverty, with parents under-employed if working at all, companies like TWA negotiate contracts with penal institutions to use convict labor in their phone reservation system.

Moore gets The Big One off to a terrific start as he reveals scams he ran on presidential campaigns during the 1996 primary season. He formed a series of dummy corporations in order to make campaign contributions. The Satan Worshipers Society sent a check to Bob Dole, the Hemp Growers Association sent one to Bill Clinton, Pedophiles for Free Trade made a contribution to Ross Perot, and Abortionists for Buchanan sent a check to Pat Buchanan. All the checks were cashed. Throughout, Moore injects his social politics with biting humor, much of which leads us to laugh out loud. In the final analysis, though, The Big One manifests a mean streak that's a lot less charming than Moore presumably thinks. In one sequence, he humiliates an ignorant bookstore manager; in another, he torments his publisher's publicist by having security guards accuse her of stalking. Furthermore, the filmmaker seems to be altogether too pleased with himself. The people Moore discombobulates with his surprise appearances and ridiculous demands are seldom people of power or influence, just functionaries trying to hold on to their own jobs. Moore's making them look stupid and cowardly doesn't put a single unemployed worker back on the payroll. But just in case we don't realize what a hero Moore is, the film is rife with fans applauding his every indignant quip. And then, of course, there's that sensitive moment when he offers a hug to a Ford worker laid off earlier that day. He's really sorry, he assures her, and he wants her to know that she's not alone, that corporate America is treating thousands of other Americans just as badly. Yes, and that alleviates her pain exactly how?

It is disturbing to know that Nike pays Michael Jordan more money annually to endorse his line of shoes than it pays an entire factory of Indonesian workers (many girls as young as 14) to make them. It's disgusting to contemplate the astronomical rise of salaries paid to corporate executives in an era in which production wages have risen only marginally. And it's astonishing to learn that Nike CEO Knight has never visited the Indonesian factories where so much of his wealth is generated. But that hardly means that self-righteous Michael Moore is entitled to so much self-congratulation. He could be funny without being smug. And he would prove a lot more appealing if he showed a little more humility.

--Rick Barton

Full Length Reviews
The Big One
The Big One

Capsule Reviews
The Big One
The Big One
The Big One

Other Films by Michael Moore
Roger & Me
The Awful Truth (tv)

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