Copyright 1998
The New York Times
'The Big One': Another Michael Moore Documentary On Plant ShutdownsApril 10, 1998
Janet Maslin

When Michael Moore got to Milwaukee in "The Big One," he had a surprise for the local managers of Johnson Controls, a plant that makes auto parts. It was a check for 85 cents. The plant was closing, its workers were being downsized, and Moore had learned that the company planned to relocate to Mexico. The check was for the first hour's work by the first cut-rate Mexican worker.


Credit:Miramax Films
Michael Moore, right, with Phil Knight, chief executive officer of Nike, in a scene from "The Big One."

"Do not threaten to call the police or have him thrown out," went a memorandum issued by another company, when the Robin Hood of Corporate America went on the road to promote his book about downsizing. "Simply remain polite but firm," it continued. "While we hope the chances that you will be approached by Moore are slim, you need to be prepared in case this situation comes to pass."

And come to pass it did for executives caught in the headlights by "The Big One," Moore's indignant but breezy new road movie. With its lively amalgam of crusading, informing and just plain kidding around, "The Big One" is the rare mainstream American film about real issues, and the too-rare documentary with a reasonably commercial future.

Moore's "Roger and Me" agenda of ambushing captains of industry is again at work here, and by now its novelty has faded. Yet he does spin an entertaining film out of these same tactics, and he communicates a fervent concern for the issues behind the practical jokes. Though the possibility of demagoguery is never at bay in a movie depicting a promotional book tour, Moore makes himself the Big One of the title only in a teasing sense.

The film actually gets its name from a radio interview in which Moore suggested changing the name of the United States of America into something more dynamic ("The Big One"), honoring bald men because they are more common than bald eagles, and turning "We Will Rock You" into the national anthem.

"The Big One" nicely balances serious advocacy with playful stunts. That must come naturally to a man who, when getting on an airplane, is buttonholed by flight attendants wanting to talk about their pay rates and working conditions.

Clearly passionate on the issue of downsizing, Moore sometimes expresses his point of view with effective bluntness. If blowing up a building is called terrorism, he says to Studs Terkel, a kindred spirit, during a radio interview, then "what do you call it, Studs, when you politely remove the people that work in the building and THEN blow it up?"

But no movie aimed at middle-of-the-road American audiences can survive on such somber thoughts alone. So much of Moore's casual, loose-jointed "Big One" is more blithe.


Credit:Miramax Films
Michael Moore, with Rick Nielsen, of the musical group Cheap Trick, in a scene from "The Big One."

Seen addressing one of many admiring audiences for his stand-up shtick, Moore explains that some TWA flight reservations are made by prison inmates, and considers the scary implications of that. He wonders suspiciously why Steve Forbes never blinks, and calls an eye specialist to discuss the matter.

While visiting Rockford, Ill., which has replaced Moore's hometown of Flint, Mich., as America's least appetizing city in the opinion of Money magazine, he is fed disinformation by a bookstore worker and enthusiastically proves her wrong. Having been told that the Rockford native Rick from Cheap Trick is not in town, Moore heads straight for an impromptu guitar session with Rick.

And does the scourge of the corporate world feel uneasy about being published by Random House and having his books sold in chain stores around the nation? "You know, I did until I made the New York Times bestseller list," Moore says mischievously. "Now I think corporations are not so bad. The flat tax is not such a bad idea, either."

His joking aside, what do Moore's guerrilla tactics ("The deal is, you never turn the camera off," he instructs his cinematographer) actually bring to the problems of displaced American workers? Provocation and attention, certainly.

But far more lingering than Moore's surprise showdowns with various plant managers seen here is the glimmer of hope that his high-profile crusading can prompt thought or even get some jobs back.

A lively sparring match with Nike Corp. chairman Phil Knight doesn't culminate in a Nike shoe plant for Flint, which is what Moore asks for. But it does find these two adversaries speaking face to face, if not eye to eye, about the kinds of labor issues that don't often make it to the multiplex. So at least it's a start.

Production notes:

THE BIG ONE

CAST: Michael Moore, Garrison Keillor, Studs Terkel, Rick Nelson and Phil Knight

Written and directed by Michael Moore; directors of photography, Brian Danitz and Chris Smith; edited by Meg Reticker; music by the World Famous Blue Jays; produced by Kathleen Glynn; released by Miramax Films.

Running time: 96 minutes. This film is rated PG-13.

Rating: "The Big One" is rated PG (Parents strongly cautioned). It includes mild profanity.

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