Copyright 1998 Globe Newspaper Company
If the Shoe Fits; Documentarian Michael Moore Says He Never Meant for His New Movie to be "Nike & Me" April 5, 1998
By Renee Graham, Globe Staff

Michael Moore wants the world to know he has nothing against people making money. He doesn't scorn capitalism, or condemn big corporations for turning profits that line the silk pockets of executives.

He just wants to know when enough is enough.

"Is 'enough' a dirty word in corporate America?" he asked. "It seems there's no such thing as enough."

Moore - filmmaker, rabble-rouser, and professional thorn in the side of corporate America - wants to know why some companies already making hundreds of millions each year continue to break the backs of the working class by downsizing or moving their operations to countries where the labor is cheap.

"Have they forgotten the lesson we learned as kids that we would be judged by how we treat the least among us?" Moore asked. "Have they forgotten that a rich man's camel has a better chance of passing through the eye of a needle than a rich man has of getting into heaven?"

The fat cats of corporate America may indeed have a tough time strolling through the Pearly Gates if the gatekeepers are familiar with Moore's work - films that have become an ongoing crusade on behalf of the little guy. Nine years ago, he crashed the movie world with his provocative and hilarious documentary, "Roger & Me." The film followed Moore's aborted efforts to meet with Roger Smith, then chairman of General Motors. Moore wanted Smith to see the devastation that GM plant closings wreaked on Flint, Mich., Moore's hometown. It was a roundhouse right to the jaw of every big boss who cares more for profits than for people, a poke in the eye of every company that, in the name of greed, turned the American dream into a nightmare.

Moore again wields his wit and camera as a weapon against corporate cupidity and stupidity, in "The Big One." The highlight of the film (which opens Friday) is a startling encounter between Moore and Nike chairman Phil Knight, whose candor has the Oregon-based sneaker giant scrambling for spin control before the film hits the screen. Knight, who requested the on-camera meeting with Moore, is captured saying "Americans don't want to make shoes" when Moore asks why all of the company's athletic shoes are made by underpaid workers in countries such as Indonesia.

Moore never really intended to make "The Big One." The documentary developed while he was crisscrossing the country to promote his 1996 bestseller, "Downsize This! Random Thoughts from an Unarmed American." Instead of traveling to major cities, Moore instead went to such out-of-the-way locales as Centralia, Ill., and Madison, Wis., where he met many people suffering labor pains resulting from the capricious decisions of their employers. These are the men and women, Moore said, left in the dust of the much-ballyhooed economic boom of the 1990s. Their encounters with Moore make up much of the movie.

"Why is it that during this time of great economic recovery, families are being evicted, and 68 percent of the kids in the Flint school district are still eligible for federal lunch programs, which means they live below the poverty level?" Moore said. "On the surface things look good, but if you peel back the layers, personal bankruptcies are at an all-time high, personal debt is at an all-time high, there are 40 million people without health care. The one-third who are doing really well right now are doing it on the backs of the other two-thirds, and that's the story which is not being written."

So Moore, a former journalist, has decided to write it in his own endearing but pointed way.

During a recent stop in Boston, Moore, 44, stood out among the $ 700 suits and Italian loafers huddled around tables in the lobby lounge of the Sheraton Boston Hotel. The large, shambling Moore wore a Kansas City Royals baseball cap - and that was the highlight of this day's sartorial statement. The rest of the ensemble included well-worn New Balance sneakers, a hopelessly wrinkled short-sleeved blue shirt, and Levis that - well, let's not talk about the Levis.

It is, perhaps, the uniform of the working class, those with whom Moore most identifies. He maintains he is not a political activist, but he doesn't mind being the voice for the forgotten. It comes rather naturally. Though he is now an acclaimed filmmaker and a best-selling author, in his heart he will always be a kid from Flint whose family spent decades building Chevys and Buicks on assembly lines.

"Everything that has happened for me is a big fluke," Moore said. "Back home, folks are happy one of us got out, that someone escaped from the camp."

When he was young, and Flint still seemed like the whole wide world, every Buick was made in Moore's hometown. That's every Buick - from Somerville to Singapore to Sydney. In six months, the last GM plant producing Buicks in Flint will close. Those are the statistics Moore sprouts like a mantra, counteracting all the recent feel-good economic news.

"If you talk to the average person, yes, they're employed. But last year they were making $ 40,000 working for IBM, and this year they're managing Taco Bell and making $ 25,000," said Moore, who now lives in New York with his wife and daughter but often visits Flint. "Over and over again, this is what I see. I consider these acts of economic terrorism."

In return, Moore practices his own brand of guerrilla warfare, wrapping executives in their hypocrisy. That's what happened when Moore visited Knight in Portland. Needless to say, others at Nike were not amused with Knight's comments, including one stating that they employ overseas workers as young as 14.

"I was stunned, but I appreciated the honesty," said Moore with a laugh. Moore didn't hear anything from Nike until six months after his interview with Knight. Company officials somehow got their hands on a bootleg tape of Moore's film, and when they saw Knight's remarks, the fur began to fly.

"Once they saw him in the greater context of the film, the light bulbs went off," Moore said. "Then they went, 'Uh-oh.' "

Nike, which posted $ 9 billion in sales last year and spends about $ 900 million on marketing, is now trying to have some of Knight's comments edited out of the film. So far, both Moore and Miramax have declined. "What they want out of the film isn't anything I said or edited or did," Moore said. "They say he misspoke, and I should be a good guy and take it out because he didn't really mean to make that comment about the 14-year-olds."

The only way Moore will edit out Knight's comments, he says, is if the Nike chairman will promise to build a factory in Flint. Harvey and Bob Weinstein of Miramax, which is donating 50 percent of the film's profits to Flint charities, have said they would allow revisions if Knight agreed to Moore's request.

A Nike spokesman said such a move "seems unlikely."

But other Nike actions could make things sticky for Miramax. The company might pull its interest in a product tie-in for an upcoming Miramax film, Moore said. And he believes the company might try to smear him as well, much the way GM tried to during "Roger & Me," with questions about the film's accuracy and representation of events. But Moore said he is undeterred, and the film will open, intact, as planned.

"These people at Nike are marketing and PR geniuses, and I have no sympathy for them," Moore said. "He said it; I didn't put those words in his mouth."

Now that "The Big One" is done, Moore has written a pilot for a CBS comedy series, "Better Days." Not surprisingly, it tackles a subject close to Moore's heart - a town devastated after the factories close. It will star Jim Belushi and Chris Elliott as two unemployed men scheming and scamming to survive. It's Moore's second foray into TV, following the failed "TV Nation," which never quite found its rhythm, not to mention an audience.

There's also a film project in the works, which, according to Moore, "will have nothing to do with that subject" of ruined towns and people. But Moore said he will never fully abandon that topic. His films, he said, have become a pulpit, one he is privileged to occupy. After all, he says, "I know I should be on those lines, building those Buicks."

"I have two hopes for this film, and the first is a very simple one. I would hope the average working stiff out there who is busting their butt on the job to make ends meet goes to this movie, and for an hour and a half will feel like there's somebody on their side and somebody who understands," he said. "I want them to have a great cathartic laugh at the expense of these corporations who have been making their lives pretty miserable."

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