Copyright 1998 International Herald Tribune
Michael Moore, Sticking Out Like a Sore ThumbApril 23, 1998
By Rita Kempley; Washington Post Service

Michael Moore has done for documentary films what Whiz did for cheese: made the dry form accessible, fun even, for the ordinary Joe or Jane, the very audience the native son of Flint, Michigan, wants to reach and aims to please.

The writer, director and raconteur, who shambled onto the scene as the impudent protagonist of ''Roger & Me,'' is up to his old tricks in ''The Big One,'' a scathingly funny look at corporate hubris and political bombast. Some critics have suggested that ''The Big One'' refers to the 270-pound filmmaker, who shot the picture during a promotional tour for his book, ''Downsize This!,'' then goes and appears in virtually every scene. But Moore begs to disagree: ''If I were writing the review, I would say this is a selfless film by a guy who could have taken the money from 'Roger & Me' and gone on and made goofy summer-camp movies. I got offered a million dollars to do a Dunkin' Donuts commercial a couple of weeks ago.'' No question he turned Dunkin' down.

Though he has undoubtedly eaten his share of pastries, it is against his principles to lend his name to any product. ''I knew when I was in the editing room that some critics weren't going to want to look at me for 90 minutes,'' he says. ''I knew they were going to nail me: 'E nough already of this guy.' ''But they don't ask Woody Allen or Robin Williams why they're in all the scenes in their movies. They don't call them egomaniacs. I mean, it is my movie, it's my statement. And I'm sorry that you've got to look at me. I'm not Tom Cruise. So I'm not sitting there in the back of the theater going, 'Look at me. I'm up there entertaining the masses with my good looks and debonair sense of humor.'''

The son of an Irish assembly-line worker and a clerk-secretary, Moore was born with a blue collar and raised on the gospel according to Walter Reuther: a decent wage for a decent day's work. ''My uncle was in the sit-down strike that founded the UAW in the '30s,'' he says proudly. And while he is often labeled a political activist, he considers himself ''a citizen in a democracy, and that should imply political activism. '' ''Democracy is not a spectator sport,'' he says. ''I hope I'm making my small contribution as a citizen by shedding some light on the social condition. When I grew up there were films from 'A Clockwork Orange' to 'Z' to 'Dog Day Afternoon' that dealt with the social condition. Today that's rare, so I stick out like a sore thumb, and it shouldn't be that way.''

Documentary filmmakers are trained to follow a script or a theme, Moore explains. He decided to follow the schedule set by his publisher, Random House, and see what happened. ''Nothing was planned in advance. The week we show up in St. Louis is the last week for those Payday workers. The day I shot in Milwaukee, we're getting lunch in the food court at the Mall of America and meet the ex-con who was a TWA reservations clerk while he was in jail.'' While the guerrilla filmmaker makes his patented house calls on various corporate executives, all but one are as elusive as General Motors' chairman, Roger Smith, whom Moore pursued with such hilarious futility in his 1989 debut, ''Roger & Me.'' Astonishingly, the chairman of Nike, Phil Knight, one of Moore's ''favorite corporate crooks,'' invited him over to the Nike campus for a strange and unguarded pair of interviews.

Knight, who genuinely seems to believe in Nike's altruism, must have imagined he could justify his company's practices and his own dubious sentiments. Asked to justify the export of U.S. jobs overseas and its use of underpaid, underage laborers, Knight doesn't miss a beat. ''Americans just don't want to make shoes,'' he says.

While he fiddled around with the time line in ''Roger & Me,'' the Corporate Avenger will not betray the expectations of his audience. ''A lot of people forget where they come from,'' he says. ''Like the other day, Bill Clinton said, 'If I were Joe Sixpack I .' And I'm thinking, what do you mean 'if'? You are Joe Sixpack. Just because you went to Yale and Oxford doesn't mean you're not from the working class. You are one of us, and let me tell you, Buddy, that's the reason why a lot of people voted for you.'' Moore, who lived in Washington for several years, had hoped to pop in on a few of his favorite pols. But Congress wasn't in session, so he had to be satisfied with bugging the folks at the ABC-TV bureau, just below his hotel room. When a photographer tried to take his picture, Moore shined her lights into the bureau's window. When staffers finally looked up to see what was going on, the big one was tickled silly with his prank. It was a Bart Simpson moment and one wholly in keeping with the tone of Moore's work. That impudence and ill-disguised ire inform his projects and endear him to his fans. ''I make comedies, that's what I do, but they come from a place inside of me that is really filled with outrage at the social condition,'' Moore says, jabbing a finger into his chest. ''And release for it is through my humor.''

And that's true, whether the former Mother Jones magazine editor is writing a best- selling tirade against downsizing, creating a sitcom to replace ''Roseanne'' or playing host on the soon-to-be-resurrected ''TV Nation.'' ''If there's anything I have tried to say,'' he says, ''it's that those of us who come from the working class, we've got half a brain. But you never hear our voices, or see our art. We usually don't make movies, we don't have TV shows, we don't own newspapers, so I feel very privileged that I've been able to fly in under the radar of a system that really wasn't made for me.'' ''I'll be happy, honestly, if the average working stiff goes to this movie and gets a good cathartic laugh at the powers that be, then goes home and says, 'Well, I finally spent seven dollars and got my money's worth at the movies. I felt for an hour and a half somebody was on my side.'''