God bless Michael Moore.
At a time when movies are rarely more than bedtime stories designed to let us all sleep more soundly, Moore sounds the clarion call of contrarian thinking. During times of comfort and complacency, he insists on seeking out those who have been left out. Amid an epidemic of I've Got Mine-ism, Moore is a persistent, puckish conscience, puncturing the status quo with rapier sarcasm and devastatingly simple logic.
From his first film, the 1989 "Roger & Me," in which he haplessly pursued General Motors chief Roger Smith to get an explanation of why a GM plant was closing in Moore's hometown of Flint, Mich., he has busted such cherished (he'd say oxymoronic) notions as "free-market democracy" and "classless society." What's more, Moore plies his trade with more humor than rage, the secret of all good polemic.
"The Big One" finds Moore on the cusp of a book tour in 1996, when he published his best-selling book "Downsize This!" Rather than the usual major-market barnstorm, Moore visited 47 small and mid-size cities, many of which had yet to be trickled-down on. In the tradition of "Roger & Me" and Moore's cult-television series "TV Nation," he took a camera crew along to the hinterland.
What Moore found was a country on the other side of the economic recovery he'd been hearing so much about -- the people on whose backs the economy boomed. In Centralia, Ill., he found a Pay Day candy bar factory on the brink of closing and met the dozens of people who were about to be thrown out of work. In Iowa, he was slipped a note from Borders bookstore workers who were banned from his book signing because they were trying to organize a union. In Milwaukee, he found that the city's biggest employer, Johnson Controls, was about to close and move to Mexico.
Interlarded with these vignettes are clips of Moore's speaking gigs, which combine stand-up and the soapbox in an engaging, utterly singular form of agitprop. Alongside the very real pathos of Moore's encounters, he throws in hilarious digs at erstwhile presidential candidate Malcolm Forbes (who never blinks), an equally hilarious anecdote about sending faux campaign contributions to test the candidates' greed (Clinton and Gore got a check from the Hemp Growers of America; Pat Buchanan got a check from Abortionists for Buchanan) and some choice one-liners from the book. The film's title, for example, refers to what Moore thinks we should rename the United States; he also suggests we change our national anthem to "We Will Rock You."
Moore doesn't delve too deeply into the current boom's contradictions, which make it far more complicated than a Rich Them-vs.-Poor Us dynamic. For instance, he makes no mention of the fact that, thanks to a little revolution known as 401(k), the stock market and its fortunes are no longer just the purview of old, Forbes-reading white guys -- rather, it's increasingly becoming the only retirement option for the "little people" Moore speaks for.
Still, "The Big One" is very funny and marks a great stride in Moore's on-screen persona. In "Roger & Me," his Candide act as a naif set loose in the corridors of corporate power came off as disingenuous. In "The Big One," Moore's much more self-aware -- making fun of himself when his book makes the New York Times best-seller list, for example, or munching a Pay Day while telling the company manager his downsizing policy is "insane."
Even as he puts down such companies as Procter & Gamble and TWA, he films himself using their products. No one is pure in the late-20th-century consumer-capitalist system, not even its sharpest critic.
The big payoff to "The Big One" is when Moore, famed for requesting impromptu meetings with offending CEOs, lands the big Kahuna: Phil Knight, chief of Nike. Their conversations, in which Knight defends using child labor in the politically oppressive country of Indonesia, then rejects Moore's offer to build a factory in Flint ("Americans don't want to make shoes," Knight blithely explains), are the most compelling moments of a film filled with compelling moments.
In Knight, filmgoers see not a black-and-white villain but shades of gray -- a perfectly nice man who happened to be born without a soul. And in Moore, they see a true original, who for his flaws and blind spots is still the only filmmaker of his kind -- someone who connects the dots, fights the good fight, speaks truth to power and makes it all terribly entertaining.
'The Big One'
Directed by Michael Moore
Rated PG-13 (some strong language)
Released by Miramax Films
Sun score: ***
Pub Date: 4/17/98