Copyright 1998 Globe Newspaper Company
Michael Moore on the Attack AgainApril 10, 1998
By Jay Carr

Michael Moore might have thought he'd have a problem doing a follow-up to "Roger & Me," his muckraking documentary that took General Motors CEO Roger Smith to task for closing a Buick plant and throwing thousands out of work. Since that soul-satisfying film in 1988, Moore has taken on a certain measure of celebrity and even solvency. But then along came downsizing in the '90s. As corporations discovered they could increase profits by firing American workers who made them rich and farming out jobs to lower-priced workers in other countries, Moore's new documentary, "The Big One," became inevitable.

Moore will always have work because corporations keep giving him so much to work with. As he embarked on a public relations tour for his nose-thumbing book, "Downsize This!," he kept meeting devastated workers grateful to be noticed and heard. As the exchanges continued, he began filming them as several ongoing - and unanswered - questions emerged. The big one is why people keep getting fired as corporate profits soar - an issue brought into sharply ironic focus when Moore visits Centralia, Ill., and meets distraught Payday candy bar workers told they were being fired after the company posted a $ 20 million profit.

Trekking through the heartland with his low-rent camera crew and his stakeout approach, Moore keeps finding more Fortune 500 companies downsizing. In the same vein, he films clandestine meetings of bookstore workers trying to unionize in Des Moines at the Borders Bookstore he's scheduled to appear at to plug his book. He's bounced by security when he shows up (looking characteristcally doughy and owlish beneath his specs, baseball cap, and working class gear) at Johnson Controls in Wisconsin with a self-made photo op: a giant check made out for 80 cents to be sent to Mexico to pay for the first hour of the first worker on the job, where the company relocated.

Moore finally hits paydirt when Nike CEO Phil Knight trips over his own ego and faces Moore on camera, apparently thinking he can charm his way into some positive spin. But Moore impales Knight by getting him to admit that fat company profits are derived in part from Indonesian factories where girls are paid 40 cents an hour. When Moore accuses him of employing 12-year-old girls, Knight crunches himself by saying the minimum age is 14. "Doesn't that bother you?" Moore asks, wondering aloud why Knight doesn't build a factory in Moore's hometown, beleaguered Flint, Mich. Instead, Knight offers to match Moore's contribution of $ 10,000 to the city.

Too bad the camera couldn't have caught Knight's p.r. crew, presumably barfing on the sidelines at their boss's faux pas. Moore takes the sting out of his own prosperity and New York Times bestseller list status by kicking back some of the money he makes to charities. Miramax, the company releasing the film, has pledged 50 percent of its profits to Flint charities. The fact that Moore is one of the few people willing to publicly support America's economic casualties - and has plenty of evidence to back his broadsides, including TWA's use of convict labor to book airline reservations - takes the sting out of the slickness of his stand-up comedy routines and savvy staged photo-ops.

Moore has a mean streak, and his film seems less than an idyll of solidarity when he badgers low-level flacks because he knows it makes for lively confrontational TV. They're helpless to fight back, and they're only working stiffs, too, corporate cannon fodder. The decision makers remain insulated, invisible. But then Moore needs a mean streak - and then some - to take on what he sees as the heartless hatchet men of corporate America, yanking their bonuses off the backs of the newly devastated. You've got to stand behind a guy as determined as Moore is to get in corporations' faces and rudely ask them why profits must come at the expense of people who have served them loyally and helped build their wealth in the first place. If profits are the name of the game, Moore wonders mischievously, why doesn't GM sell crack?

Moore attacks corporate welfare, which far exceeds the number of tax dollars spent on social welfare, and labels mass corporate firings as acts of economic terrorism. He refrains from asking who's going to buy the stuff corporations keep turning out if buying power is eroded by job losses. Or what corporations such as Archer Daniels Midland are really buying with their political contributions.

But those may be subjects of future films, especially with campaign financing in Republican-manufactured limbo. Meanwhile, if Moore has done nothing more than give heart to and energize a few disheartened workers, "The Big One" is a big plus in a climate where national debate on economic means versus ends is disgracefully absent. Because Moore lays the right pointed questions on the table and doesn't let them go away, because he's one of the few media presences who keeps going to bat for workers on the wrong end of the food chain, I'm glad "The Big One" is around.

Go To Boston Globe