When you first see Michael Moores increasingly leviathan proportions
onscreen at the beginning of The Big One, you cant help noting
that this guy has an ego to match his girth. How presumptuous
of him to think that anyone would be interested in a documentary
about his book-publicity tour which is in itself an exercise
But dont let Moores camera-hogging tendencies or his proletarian
slobbishness fool you. Under that ubiquitous baseball cap lurks
a wickedly clever mind. Even as he draws attention to himself,
he deflects some of it onto deeper social issues. He manages to
make you think, and keeps you so entertained meanwhile that you
dont realize youve been enlightened.
Fans of Moores infamous 1989 movie Roger and Me and his sporadically
brilliant 1995 television series TV Nation will find him true
to form in The Big One. The years have brought him a measure of
notoriety and wealth, but Moore clearly hasnt sold out; hes
still hell-bent on his crusade against capitalistic injustice.
His shtick is to portray himself as a champion of the working
class, and yet it isnt really an act he seems to genuinely
believe these people have gotten a bum deal, and hes made it
his mission in life to try to change our lopsided economic priorities.
The movie came about almost by accident. Moore was on a 47-city
tour to promote his 1996 book Downsize This! Random Threats From
an Unarmed American, and he noticed that while the public strongly
identified with his message, corporate higher-ups treated him
with barely disguised loathing. Sensing a need to document what
was going on, Moore called in his ragtag film crew most of them
scarcely out of their teens. The camera work is occasionally shaky,
but it gets the job done. And with the accompaniment of cool musical
selections, The Big One turns into a sort of rock-and-roll road
Selling books becomes peripheral to Moores own agenda, which
is to expose the fact that workers continue to be thrown out of
their jobs despite a booming economy, soaring profits, and astronomical
CEO salaries. Almost too coincidentally, he visits the Payday
candy-bar factory in Centralia, Illinois (where a sign reads Every
Day is Payday), on the very day its closing is announced. In
Iowa, he has a clandestine meeting with Borders bookstore employees
whove been trying to unionize; their supervisors had banned them
from his booksigning for fear hed be a subversive influence.
Michael Moore goes one-on-one with Nike CEO Phil Knight.
As was his custom on TV Nation, Moore repeatedly barges into corporate
headquarters and asks to see the CEO. Usually, hes either summarily
tossed out or hes met by nervous PR types who smile rigidly and,
when asked why theyre laying off people while profits are so
high, chant their mantra: We want to keep this company competitive.
At Johnson Controls in Milwaukee, where the plant is preparing
to move to Mexico, Moore hands them a check for 80 cents, to
pay the first Mexican worker, and then bestows upon them a Downsizer
of the Year award.
Between these ambushes and his booksignings, we see Moore on the
lecture circuit. Hes an effective speaker, and audiences hang
on his every word. The 1996 presidential election provides him
with additional fodder; he milks the Steve Forbes is an alien
gag for all its worth. He also does radio talk shows, including
an interview with the venerable Studs Terkel, and he asks Garrison
Keillor for advice at a booksellers trade show. In Rockford,
Illinois which he wanted to visit because it was rated the worst
place to live in America (an honor previously held by his hometown
of Flint, Michigan) Moore jams with Cheap Tricks Rick Nielsen,
doing a very creditable Dylan impression.
As a bemused Random House publicist says, This is the most fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants
book tour Ive ever seen.
But it lacks something the epiphany, the vindication Moore is
searching for. And then out of the blue, on the last stop of the
tour in Portland, Oregon, Nike CEO Phil Knight calls in to a radio
show and invites Moore to meet with him. This is indeed the big
And for Knight, a big mistake. He puts his foot in it, saying
he doesnt see anything wrong with 14-year-olds laboring for pennies,
and when Moore begs him to open a factory in Flint (which has
been on the skids ever since General Motors closed its plant there),
Knight responds with: I honestly believe Americans dont want
to make shoes. He confesses hes never visited his factories
in Indonesia, and when Moore presents him with a plane ticket
for two and says, Lets go, he refuses. The billionaire wont
even donate $10,000 to Flints schools unless Moore matches that
amount out of his own pocket. (Impressed by Moores willingness
to give, Miramax is donating 50 percent of the films profits
Apparently Knight later realized his folly, and Nikes PR department
tried to get Moore to cut this unflattering segment, which it
claims was taken out of context.
Thank God Moore didnt acquiesce. Its a filmmakers prerogative
to edit scenes according to his view of the world. And Moores
view, distasteful as it might be to Wall Street, is mostly on
target. Uncompromising and enjoyable, The Big One turns out to
be just about the most fun you can have watching a documentary.