Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Working-Class Hero

By Debbie Gilbert

APRIL 27, 1998:  When you first see Michael Moore’s increasingly leviathan proportions onscreen at the beginning of The Big One, you can’t 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 in vanity.

But don’t let Moore’s 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 don’t realize you’ve been enlightened.

Fans of Moore’s 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 hasn’t sold out; he’s 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 isn’t really an act – he seems to genuinely believe these people have gotten a bum deal, and he’s 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 movie.

Selling books becomes peripheral to Moore’s 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 who’ve been trying to unionize; their supervisors had banned them from his booksigning for fear he’d 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, he’s either summarily tossed out or he’s met by nervous PR types who smile rigidly and, when asked why they’re 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. He’s 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 it’s 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 Trick’s 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 I’ve 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 one.”

And for Knight, a big mistake. He puts his foot in it, saying he doesn’t 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 don’t want to make shoes.” He confesses he’s never visited his factories in Indonesia, and when Moore presents him with a plane ticket for two and says, “Let’s go,” he refuses. The billionaire won’t even donate $10,000 to Flint’s schools unless Moore matches that amount out of his own pocket. (Impressed by Moore’s willingness to give, Miramax is donating 50 percent of the film’s profits to Flint.)

Apparently Knight later realized his folly, and Nike’s PR department tried to get Moore to cut this unflattering segment, which it claims was taken out of context.

Thank God Moore didn’t acquiesce. It’s a filmmaker’s prerogative to edit scenes according to his view of the world. And Moore’s 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. – Debbie Gilbert

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