Published March 1, 1998
The Big One is Michael Moore’s return to the merry prankster movie—like his breakout hit Roger and Me—after a detour through a feeble attempt at comedy-drama in Canadian Bacon. He is once again playing a kind of political Allen Funt who brings his cameras into various corporate headquarters—or, in one instance, the Wisconsin state capital—and asks some hapless flack silly questions until he has enough material to edit the encounter into one of his standard vignettes. This vignette consists of a panicked looking corporate type trying to fend off big, jovial Michael, whose irresistible good humor only shows the other up as defensive and foolish. Needless to say, none of his victims ever gets the better of Michael—or even scores a point. All look like those gangsters and thugs who try to put their hands over the camera lens. I wonder that he manages to find such patsies wherever he goes.
Interspersed with his attempts to annoy corporate chieftains and their protectors in PR and security we have voiceover narration and a loving presentation by Michael Moore of Michael Moore doing one of his stand-up routines before wildly cheering audiences, usually of college students. In these he tells, for instance, of another of his pranks during the 1996 election, when he sent checks to the presidential campaigns of rival candidates purporting to come from “Satan Worshipers for Dole”, “Hemp Growers of America” (Clinton), “Abortionists for Buchanan”, and “Pedophiles for Free Trade” (Perot). And what do you think? Three of the four cashed the checks! (Dole apparently returned his) Isn’t that just a hoot!
The ostensible occasion for the movie is a book tour for Moore’s most recent book, Downsize This: Random Threats from an Unarmed American. Moore decides to go off the beaten track to second tier and medium sized cities instead of the usual metropolitan stops arranged for him by his publisher, so he finds himself in places like Centralia, Illinois, on the day that the Payday candy bar factory is Illinois shutting down. Now these people are not selling apples on the streets. All we see is unattractive middle aged people bellyaching about all the years they’ve put in at some stupefyingly boring job and how hard done by they feel because they can’t continue to do it all their lives. In today’s economy, of course, they can probably get jobs without much difficulty, but we are meant to feel sorry for an inconvenience that was once a tragedy—because it was once a tragedy.
Also because we are meant to feel guilty about laughing at their unattractiveness. This may be partly the reason, too, why Moore is so studied about his own unattractiveness. Grossly fat and wearing a bizarre succession of different baseball caps and cheap looking jeans, Moore as fat man is at least in no danger of looking like a fat cat. Everything he does is based on the assumption that corporations are welfare agencies. “Are you doing well?” he asks at Procter and Gamble. Yes they are. So then “Why not spread the wealth a little?” Why not indeed. Why not spread it a lot? Why not give it all away? To ask the question is to answer it. The wealth would not exist if it were given away. But this is one of several basic economic facts of life that Moore the merry prankster simply refuses to recognize.
Only one c.e.o. consents to face Moore’s unforgiving camera and speak to him. Phil Knight of Nike tries hard to be a good sport, but of course he is made to look as foolish as the poor flacks of other, wiser executives. He has apparently no answer to the charges of employing 14 year old Indonesians to make his shoes. Moore returns to Flint, Michigan and gathers a bunch of ex-car workers who, in a video-taped plea to Knight, insist that they want to make Nike shoes. Yeah, right. Needless to say, Moore was unable to find the time to interview the Indonesians who willingly work for Nike’s wages in order to better themselves. This is post modern politics with a vengeance. Moore is obviously not a serious person, but then we seem to want that in a president. Why not do the thing right and have a real media election next time: Michael Moore against Rush Limbaugh. Then we could give the winner a camera and a microphone and shut down the federal government permanently.