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By Bryan Newbury
November 10, 2006

Detractors of Michael Moore usually share something in common besides politics. More often than not, they haven’t seen the films of which they’re speaking.

It is surprising, then, that The Big One hasn’t shared the enmity that greeted his other feature documentaries. After all, if there is one film of Moore’s that hasn’t been seen, by and large it is this one.

The film takes place on Moore’s book tour promoting his 1996 work “Downsize This!: Random Threats from an Unarmed American.” It is little wonder that Moore has been widely castigated by not only the right, but also mainstream media in general. Here is a man making millions from films and publishing books… and he doesn’t even have a college degree! What right does such a slovenly lout have telling us on which side the bread is buttered?

Reviewing The Big One after nearly a decade, one might answer that his dispensation comes from serving as a cultural oracle.

Eschewing the typical book promotion tour spots, Moore decides to take his signings to less-traveled spots such as Milwaukee and Rockford. As though choosing Rockford for a stop isn’t far enough off the beaten path, he makes side trips such as the one to Cenralia, Illinois, home of the Payday candy bar. (O, how easy it is to suggest Mr. Moore had less altruistic motivations touring a candy factory.)

The point of this itinerary was, naturally, to highlight the plight of the American working class in the age of the dot-com boom and welfare reform.

In today’s anxious climate of foreign terrorism (as opposed to the domestic sort we endured in the 1990’s), multiple-front warfare, environmental degradation and Constitutional crises, the subject seems an extravagance. Unless you happen to be one of the Payday workers laid off by the Leaf Company after posting record profits. Or a Borders employee dodging modern company bulls whilst attempting to unionize your store and make wages slightly above the poverty level. You might want to suggest that the concerns of the working class in America are a trifle to the mothers taken off of welfare roles in Tommy Thompson’s Wisconsin only to find that the jobs available serve to keep them in the same fiscal straits and in the meantime create daycare needs which are also unfunded. At the time, those seeking to better their lot through education and technology probably would have argued that these blue collar factory dinosaurs of the Middle West were undergoing a natural change and that given the proper training all will be well. Then again, those people were likely unaware of the magical city of Bangalore. Or is it Bangalooru? No matter.

Should it need to be illustrated with more clarity, there is the scene with Moore being interviewed on Studs Terkel’s radio program. In it, the two discuss the frontispiece from “Downsize This!” Under the title “What is Terrorism?” we see two buildings that have been decimated. The first is Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 1995. The second, Flint, Michigan, 1996. The similarity is striking. As Moore ventures out into the Other America, the one without stock portfolios and golden parachutes, we see that the effects of corporate malfeasance can be just as devastating as those of madmen armed with fertilizer or airplanes.

In another radio interview, we learn the origin of the film’s title. As Moore travels the country informing those he meets that America is governed not by shareholders, but by a Constitution, which we may amend at any time. The word “shareholder” doesn’t even show up in the document. For that matter, why stick with the name of a Florentine cartographer? Why not rename it. It served the British well to adopt a muscular name for a small island. In that spirit, how about “The Big One.”

This is a Michael Moore joint, after all. It goes without saying that laughs will be had through the harrowing scenes of the American Dream falling to earth with a dull thud. In one of the funniest scenes of his oeuvre, Moore presents the checks sent to presidential candidates from such foundations as “Pedophiles for Free Trade,” “Satan Worshipers for Dole,” “Hemp Growers of America,” and (my personal favorite) “Abortionists for Buchanan.” Surprising how many were cashed. This, and his attempt to institutionalize B-1 Bob Dornan, coupled with suggesting GM sell crack, reminds us why so many love the big man’s antics.

Success can cut both ways. Moore’s shambolic persona is unknown to no one as he attempts to present various companies with Downsizing awards. The footage shows mostly security or an odd public relations person at the Milwaukee Manpower or Cincinnati’s Procter and Gamble.

He does stage a coup, nearly accomplishing the dream ending for the film. At the tail end of his whirlwind tour of 47 cities in 50 days, the unthinkable happens. Phil Knight, CEO of Nike, agrees to sit down with Moore.

Whether this is really the result of Knight’s wife insisting he speak with Moore or a clever public relations ploy, it is a surprise in any event. One has to give credit to Knight for taking the risk of facing Moore in a candid interview. Some have suggested that it was a wise strategy. To this viewer, it only serves to validate the old-time business wisdom of men like Roger Smith. To paraphrase Mark Twain, better to keep off camera and have people think you’re a greedy asshole than to be on camera and remove all doubt.

Though Moore seems surprised at Knight’s acceptance, he is certainly prepared with his bag of tricks. At one point he presents Knight with first class tickets to Indonesia so the two can tour the Nike sweatshops there. Knight’s schedule is very tight for the date. Never fear, the dates are transferable! Knight dances around this stunt, but has a harder time justifying his reluctance to build a shoe factory in Flint after feigning consideration. To both Moore and Knight’s credit, there are a few nice gestures towards the end on the part of the Nike CEO.

All things considered, The Big One isn’t made from the same stuff that make his other features documentary instant classics. If it has an Achilles heel, it could well be that the film itself is too instant. When it was first released, it would not be foolish to suggest that Moore had topped Roger and that he couldn’t possibly go up from there. Then Moore treated us to his best to date, Bowling for Columbine, whose Collector’s Edition DVD comes with The Big One and footage from his “Dude, Where’s My Country?” book tour.

This Collector’s Set is hands-down the best way to purchase The Big One. To be fair, some films are Bordeaux and some Beaujolais. This one falls under the latter category, and in 1997 there was scarcely a better way to spend ninety-one minutes of a person’s time. It remains an enjoyable experience despite this, and gives one hope that fifty years from now it can join the Moore Canon as an anthropological argument about America in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. By that time, one prays that the consensus will be that of Moore’s. They shall look at the way predatory capitalism treated its underlings and exclaim “What a bunch of assholes!”


Color, 91 minutes, Dog Eat Dog Films


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