A Funny but Flawed Messenger Delivers a Big Message
Michael Moore's latest project, The Big One, is a movie about freeloading welfare recipients--not single teenage mothers, mind you, but the biggest mothers of them all: the businesses that make up Corporate America.
Moore treads much of the same ground and uses the same M.O. as he did in 1989's Roger & Me (and frequently in his Emmy-winning television show TV Nation): filmmaking by ambush, with a brash, funny, and relentlessly honest approach. In Roger & Me Moore documented his attempts to meet with General Motors head Roger Smith to question the executive about plant closings in Moore's native Flint, Mich. This time around Moore is tracking more than one target. Traveling to 47 cities in 50 days, he visits with displaced local workers and tries to barge into corporate offices to confront the suits that downsized them out of jobs. And naturally, being Michael Moore, he brings a camera crew along to capture it all.
In The Big One, Moore asks a hard question of moviegoers as well as the (mostly elusive) corporate CEOs he seeks: Why is it that at a time when most corporations are posting record profits, workers are in danger of losing their jobs? Even in a flush economy where unemployment is at a 24-year low and there's a much-discussed shortage of skilled labor, Moore finds example after example of job loss due to downsizing, and the export of labor to underdeveloped countries.
Not surprisingly, Moore is brusquely shown the door when he arrives unannounced at the headquarters of companies such as Proctor & Gamble and Nike to present them with his Downsizer of the Year awards. These trademark Moore corporate-confrontation moments provide some of the film's funniest scenes. One of the best is when he tries to present a giant-size check for 80 cents to Johnson Controls, a Milwaukee auto-parts manufacturer moving its plant to Mexico--and eliminating hundreds of jobs in the process--despite steady profits. "This is a personal donation I'd like to make to pay the first hourly wage of one of your new workers," Moore tells a tight-lipped PR flack in the lobby of Johnson's corporate offices.
Some of Moore's planned ambushes backfire, however. For example, his attempt to invade Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson's office with an army of welfare mothers falls apart when a calm, cool, and well-informed Thompson aide parries Moore's welfare-reform diatribe with statistics that refute his claim. Thus thwarted, Moore ducks for cover amid the chaos of his ornery recruits, who wave toilet brushes and bellow at the politicos.
There are other elements of The Big One that don't quite work either. One big problem is the nausea-inducing camera work. A certain amount of jumping and jolting is to be expected in hand-held video-camera shooting, but at times the point of view is a consciously disorienting and unnecessary panorama of sidewalks, feet, sky, and trees--we really don't need to see that. The entire film could benefit from tighter editing, an indication of a certain amount of self-indulgence on Moore's part. The numerous scenes of the director addressing enthusiastic book-tour audiences (the movie was filmed in conjunction with Moore's cross-country promotion of his tome Downsize This!) begin to drag, and significant portions of the film stray pretty far from the topic at hand.
Digressions include Moore doing stand-up-style riffs on topics such as the difference between venial and mortal sins, trading book-tour-survival advice with Garrison Keillor, and trading guitar riffs with Cheap Trick's Rick Nielsen--amusing, yes, but not exactly at the heart of the film. Such scenes remind the viewer that The Big One isn't just about downsizing, corporate welfare, and the vulnerability of the American worker--it's also about the Big Guy, Michael Moore.
But Moore is refreshingly honest about his own foibles and weaknesses--poking fun, for example, at flying first-class while his camera crew is relegated to coach. Since this is his film he didn't have to include that tidbit, or the scene in the Wisconsin governor's office, or others that show him in a less-than-flattering light; there are no emperor's new clothes here. And the documentary more than compensates for such pratfalls with some great moments in which Moore truly rises to the occasion. One is his brash retort to the umpteenth exec who claims that worker cutbacks must be made in order to increase profits. "If it's all just about making a profit," Moore says, "Then why doesn't General Motors sell crack?" Another moving moment occurs when he gives an encouraging hug to a teary fan who was just that day laid off from her job.
After a great deal of rambling--literally, around America's second-tier cities, and figuratively, through Moore's roundabout pursuit of his subject--The Big One brings it all home again by culminating at Nike headquarters, where CEO Phil Knight (one of Moore's "favorite corporate crooks") goes on camera; he's the only corporate exec willing to talk to Moore in person. Moore gets Knight to blithely admit that he's never visited Nike's Indonesian factories, where children as young as 14 work making America's most popular--and most profitable--athletic shoes. Knight proves to be a good sport and honestly answers Moore's proddings; although tense, the interviews are good-natured. Moore's two interviews with Knight (and the veins that bulge alarmingly in the CEO's forehead throughout) are some of the most riveting and successful stunts the director has ever pulled off.
Indeed, though Moore's self-indulgences make him a less-than-perfect messenger, the strength of his message and his gift for humor redeem the film. The Big One ultimately succeeds because no one can make a hilarious documentary about a serious subject like Michael Moore can.