THE BIG ONE (1997) *** 1/2
Did Michael Moore plot the release of his film close to that of "Bulworth"'s? Did he contribute to the current turmoil in Indonesia? Of course not, but his timing could not have been better. Both new films denounce the political-big business establishment, while the Asian country enters the argument in Moore's interviews of Nike's CEO about shoes made by child labor paid just pennies an hour.
The initials MM long stood for Marilyn Monroe, but Michael Moore's are becoming a close second. The contrast between the two personalities is like Beauty Marilyn and Moore the capital-exposing Beast. The burly, paunchy, embattled prole in baggy, slept-in clothes and his eternal baseball caps, is perfect as a self-appointed vox populi for the masses of workers in the United States, especially those laid off by large concerns.
The title comes from a radio interview where facetious MM proposes "The Big One" as a replacement for the un-catchy name of our country. But it also stands for the big corporations that make so many employees "redundant" as the British say, without regard to what happens to them next. That was the theme of "Roger and Me," (1989) the wild documentary that made Moore a celebrity as, in quest of answers, he chased after the Big Boss of General Motors. The series "TV Nation" (1994) lasted too little because their special humor applied to serious subjects did not lay any golden eggs for the network. Also in 1994, his satirical fiction feature "Canadian Bacon," mis-plotted and misguided was a bore that could fry but not fly. Wisely, MM is back to the "Roger" mode, in which he's at his best in harrassing corporations. There may be a sense of deja vu in "The Big One," but its truths and facts are worth hammering on and expanding.
Moore became a best-selling author with his book "Downsize This!," a collection of mocking, sharp, take-no-prisoners essays on today's America. During the 1992 election campaign days, his publishers sent him on a book-signing tour of close to 50 cities. Unbeknownst to them, MM had the very bright idea of having a camera crew along to record everything, from casual chats, to talking to groups, to his unconventional public lectures, to his wagging his finger --always with a smiling presence -- at corporate persons.
Embattled Moore has developed as a first-rate stand-up comic. Faithful to his muckraking, to telling it like it is, to his protest mission, he gives hilarious "performances" stressing the theme of Them and Us. He leaves few stones unturned and few corporations un-stoned. Every chance he has, he seeks out bigwigs of business (who by and large elude him), or their spokespeople. His basic question is simply something like "Do you know what you are doing to workers, and why do you do it?"
True, in 1992 the economy is booming in a period of fat cows, even obese ones, but this does not help the many job-losers whose companies take their business to places such as Indonesia or Mexico.
Itinerant evangelist Moore cleverly starts his travels with Centralia, Illinois, where the Pay Day candy bar company causes much suffering by closing its local works. You couldn't ask for more pointed irony. As Voltaire said "If God did not exist, he should have been invented." Pay Day does exist.
There and in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, sad men, and mothers lucky enough to have found employment, speak of their multiple part-time jobs that exhaust them and keep them away from their families. In Des Moines, non-redundant but part-time, minimum-wage employees at the Borders Books store, talk of their problems. (Later we find out that encouraged by Moore they have unionized. This results in other Borders stores banning MM from further book-signings and adding grist to his mill! )
The local headquarters for presidential candidate Steven Forbes provide a not-so-irrelevant diversion about "Who he ?" The young campaign manager is not particularly savvy about his employer, while Moore calls attention to the fact that Forbes, as clearly seen on TV footage, never blinks, a most bizarre condition, as per a medical specialist. Could Forbes be an E.T.?
MM's scattershot approach is a delight. In Milwaukee, Johnson Controls made half a billion in profits in the last three years, yet is relocating to Mexico. Although unable to see the head honcho, Moore does send him a mammoth-sized check ... for 80 cents, the hourly earnings of Mexican workers, as well as a Certificate for Downsizing. In that city too is the head office of the temp workers agency Manpower, Inc. which, declares Moore, is now the largest employer in the country.
In a symbolic gag in Madison, Wisconsin, MM leads to the Capitol a bunch of welfare people who will be happy to clean, for nothing, the Governor's office. In Minneapolis-St.Paul, chatting with a tattoed ex-convict in a cafeteria, he is told something scary as well as surrealistic: TWA hires, at $2 an hour, prisoners in jails to handle by telephone some of the airline's reservations services. Adds Moore: "Many other firms do the same: Spalding, Eddie Bauer, Microsoft, AT&T, etc." Bear this in mind next time you're about to disclose information to just a voice.
Moore's attempts to meet with CEOs are met by rebuffs and evasions that range from polite to hostile. No matter whom he talks to, it is almost creepy to see that all business underlings are protective of their companies, transparently insecure and scared of saying or doing anything that might get their heads cut off.
The answers to Moore's questions are no more than what one expects. The alibi-mantras include "To keep the company competitive," "Our responsibility to our shareholders," "To increase earnings." Profit is the A to Z motive. The film could have had other titles too, like those of the American classic "Greed" for the business side or the Russian classic "Stalker" for Moore's methods. So, he says to a roaring audience, how about letting GM sell crack and make even bigger money?
In Chicago there is a short parenthesis as the invaluable Studs Terkel has MM as his radio guest. In a true meeting of minds, humor is set aside in favor of seriousmess and eagerness. This encounter runs only for a few, touching minutes.
When Phil Knight, the CEO of Nike, Number 3 on MM's long hit list, agrees to a meeting plus follow-up, it comes as a surprise. Both Knight and Moore show good humor. It leads, however, to a cul-de-sac. Knight stands his ground, comes up with a correction ("I checked: Indonesian workers are not 12 but 14"), believes (or pretends) that Americans don't want to make shoes. Moore bets him he can come up with 500 people willing to do it. But at a rally in Flint, by my count, fewer than 200 show up. No wonder that Moore's report skips this fact. At least he will contribute $10,000 to the unemployed if Knight matches this, which the Nike billionaire does.
These are merely a few examples of the richness of the documentary's in episodes and details. The crusader has a knack for making comedy from painful crises and getting a lot of laughs, yet without losing sight of plights and pathos. Though now a capitalist from royalties, he remains faithful to his social credos, contributes large sums to the needy, even has a deal with film distributors Miramax to give away half of "The Big One"'s profits.
As in all movies dealing with social justice and injustices, and as in all agit-prop, Moore's work certainly simplifies vastly complex issues. His sole consideration, in which he excels, is the human element. Critical reception at festivals (Toronto 97, Berlin 98) has been very good. The general public's reactions may ultimately depend on viewers' income. Those unemployed or seriously underpaid will love the movie. Earners of high five or low six figures, will like it if they are socially conscious. Above this level there may be few takers, but it's no loss of audiences, since the very wealthy seldom have time to spend on movies.