Copyright 1998 Newsweek
Nike's Knight Lands on Michael Moore's SkewerMarch 30, 1998
By Joshua Hammer

How anxious is Nike about the imminent release of "The Big One," the wickedly funny new documentary made by "Roger and Me" writer-director Michael Moore? Very anxious, according to Moore.

Shortly before the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last January, Moore relates, he received a call from Nike's head of public relations, Lee Weinstein, asking for a meeting in Manhattan. Nike had just obtained a bootleg copy of Moore's documentary, in which CEO Phil Knight explains on camera that he uses cheap Indonesian labor because "Americans don't want to make shoes." "Weinstein said to me, 'What would it take to have a couple of scenes removed from the movie?' " Moore claims. "I thought, 'Is he offering me money? Shoes for life?' " Weinstein begged him, Moore says, to delete one scene in which Knight admits to employing 14-year-olds at his Indonesian factories. "He told me, 'Phil didn't mean to say that'," Moore says, laughing. A Nike spokesman admits Moore was asked to remove the scene, but denies offering him any quid pro quo. Replies Moore, who never asked exactly what Nike was proposing: "Where was Linda Tripp when I needed her?"

Even Tripp probably couldn't have embarrassed Nike more than Moore does in "The Big One." (The title is Moore's joke nickname for the United States.) Made on a paltry budget and shot in three weeks in late 1996, the film follows Moore on a boisterous cross-country book tour. He veers off to chat with laid-off factory workers and push his way into the lobbies of downsizing companies in a futile effort to see the top brass. Nike's Knight is the only CEO with the guts to go on camera, but he pays the price: he sheepishly admits he's never visited his company's Third World factories, and sits stone-faced through a video of hundreds of unemployed workers in Flint, Mich., begging him to open a plant there.

The film shows a side of America that has been all but ignored by the mainstream media, Moore claims, as they trumpet the soaring stock market. "What a sad commentary," he says, picking at his berry-and-melon salad at a trendy Santa Monica, Calif., beach hotel, "that this schlump in a ball cap has to be the one bursting into corporate headquarters asking, 'If you're making a record profit, why are you throwing people out of work?' "

Moore has built his career as the self-appointed scourge of corporate America. He became an overnight celebrity with "Roger and Me," his subversive 1989 documentary about the closing of General Motors plants and the idling of 30,000 workers in his hometown of Flint. The movie grossed $25 million--the biggest take of any documentary ever--and became a public-relations nightmare for GM and chairman Roger Smith. (It also aroused the wrath of critics who charged that Moore had played with the facts to build his case.)

Moore followed up with the critically acclaimed but short-lived NBC-Fox series "TV Nation," which featured Moore engaging in such pranks as trying to buy the nuke aimed at Flint from the former Soviet Union for $10,000. "There is nobody else in TV or film doing anything like what Michael does," says former "TV Nation" writer Chris Kelly.

Moore's ego seems to have grown along with his reputation. Unlike "Roger and Me," where he was barely seen on screen, Moore dominates "The Big One" for nearly all of the film's 89 minutes, hugging a tearful Ford plant worker who just lost her job, jamming with Cheap Trick's lead guitarist and doing comedy riffs before an adoring audience of college students. Janet Maslin wrote in The New York Times that "Mr. Moore appears to mistake himself for a folk hero most of the time." Moore blames his editor, not his ego, for his heavy screen presence: "Nobody who looks like this wants to see themselves blown up 40 feet and have people staring at them for 90 minutes," he says. Moore leaves out one point, however: he controlled the final cut.

There's likely to be much more of Moore in the near future. He appears in a cameo role in Ron Howard's "Ed TV," is shooting a comedy pilot for CBS and received financing from Britain's Channel 4 to produce 12 new episodes of "TV Nation" for British and U.S. television. Guerrilla filmmaking has paid off for Moore: he now lives on Central Park West, sends his teenage daughter to an elite private school and flies first class at his publisher's or film distributor's expense. Still he insists he hasn't forgotten his roots: he visits his hometown every six weeks, and he donates money to a fund he set up for independent filmmakers and liberal social causes. Moore insists the only ones bothered by his material success are college-educated bluebloods. "They don't want trailer trash moving into the neighborhood," he says. His buddies in Flint "celebrate that I was able to get out so I could be a voice for them. This wasn't supposed to happen. I'm supposed to be in Flint making Buicks." Phil Knight and the other folks at Nike surely wish he were.

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