Copyright 1998 Gannett Company, Inc.
'Big' In-Their-Face Documentarian's 'Random Thoughts'April 16, 1998
Claudia Puig

Guerrilla-style documentarian -- and former seminarian -- Michael Moore practices what he preaches.

On a recent visit to Los Angeles he was given a driver to shuttle him around town between publicity stops for his new movie, The Big One, and production meetings for a sitcom pilot.

"On the way to the hotel tonight, the driver says to me, 'I'm staying with you the rest of the night, Mr. Moore, whatever you need,' " says Moore, grabbing a quick dinner at a West Hollywood hotel before the L.A. premiere of his movie.

"I asked him, 'What time did you come on today?' He says, 'Five a.m.' I said, 'What are you doing here? Go home.' He says, 'That's OK. I don't have a family.' "

Moore shakes his head and sighs. "I said, 'Did you ever think that maybe the reason you don't have one is because you're driving me around? Get off the clock here and figure out how to start a family.' "

Perhaps it is his line of work, but Moore runs into similarly overworked folks all across the country.

"Some people want to see the 4.6% lowest unemployment in 24 years," he says. "They see that little statistic and feel good about it. I see something else."

What he can't help but see is featured in The Big One, which follows Moore on a 47-city book tour to promote his best seller, Downsize This: Random Thoughts From an Unarmed American. In the film, Moore takes on (some would say ambushes) corporate honchos who have laid off dozens to thousands of workers or shut down entire operations. The documentary opened in several cities last week and will expand to 30 more Friday.

In 1989, the then-unknown Moore made his first documentary, Roger and Me, about the economic debacle faced in his hometown of Flint, Mich., when General Motors closed its plant there. He spent 90 minutes in search of General Motors chairman Roger Smith. Roger and Me cost a minuscule $ 200,000. The movie became one of the highest-grossing documentaries ever, going on to make $ 6.2 million. .

Man with a mission

Many regard Moore as a latter-day Robin Hood with a camera. In his quest to minimize corporate greed, Moore faces down executives who preach the gospel of the bottom line and profit above all -- and records it for posterity.

He gives half of all the money he makes to charities, schools and struggling filmmakers.

Though passionate about unemployment, Moore doesn't see himself as an activist attempting to right the wrongs of corporate America. "I don't think anybody should consider themselves that. Everyone should consider themselves a citizen or citizen activist," he says. "Someone like me flies in under the radar. I'm talking about what people are going through. It's that finger on the pulse, that raw nerve. I feel like I had to do this. Democracy is not a spectator sport. It's a participatory act. I want change in my lifetime. I'm not into being a poser."

The 43-year-old Moore believes he is one of the lucky ones. He escaped a working-class life that could have resulted in his own joblessness.

"I sort of got out; I'm not on the assembly line. So I've got this responsibility to tell the truth about people like us who come from the Flint, Michigans, of the country. But sometimes people don't want to hear the truth, or they get nervous about it, or they want to marginalize me."

Marginalize, or put him behind bars. In The Big One, Moore is handcuffed and nearly carted off before he is able to prove he did nothing unlawful in attempting to talk to the head of one Midwestern candy manufacturer.

Threats of arrest have become more frequent. "I'm going to get nailed one of these times," Moore says. "I'm going to put bail money in the next film budget. Seriously."

Now that he has this new-found celebrity, there are some big cheeses who want neither to marginalize nor to incarcerate him. "Clinton wanted to meet me when he first ran for president," Moore says. "He wanted a photo op. I wouldn't do it." For a man who shunned the ultimate photo opportunity, Moore is in front of the camera a great deal in The Big One. Moore is essentially the star of the documentary, a role he initially felt uncomfortable with, after being behind the scenes through most of Roger and Me. When he approaches company execs, they know who he is, thanks to his earlier movie, the television show he created, TV Nation, and his best-selling book.

Point, counterpoint

Some detractors knock him not so much for his in-your-face tactics but for injecting his growing celebrity and ego into The Big One.

"Heartbreaking in its capacity to inspire a longing for something beyond the cult of personality, this is the only movie I know which opens with applause for the director," writes J. Hoberman of The Village Voice, referring to Moore's stand-up schtick at the film's start and peppered throughout. "It's as if Moore is providing his own sycophantic rockumentary. The Big One takes its title from Moore's proposed new name for America, but long before it ends it's describing his ego. There's not even room for Roger this time around. Why not call it Me?" Moore's take: "I'm sure some people are going to say, 'Who does he think he is?' I debated it, but at one point I just said, 'To hell with it.' I really want to show the response that people are having to the message. They are not standing and applauding me. What they're applauding is 'My God, somebody is saying something that we feel.' We don't hear our voice, working-class people. We don't have TV shows, we don't have newspapers. So what do we have?"

Workers of the world, and filmgoers everywhere, have Michael Moore. Even CEOs have Moore.

A highlight of the film is Moore's only showdown with a CEO, Phil Knight of Nike. (No others would deign to meet with him on camera.) Knight, who had read Moore's book, hears the filmmaker is in town and invites him to visit Nike's Portland, Ore., headquarters. Once there, Moore is genial and warm but keeps his hard-line stance. He offers Knight a pair of plane tickets to Indonesia so the two can observe the substandard working conditions in Nike plants, which Moore says employ 14-year-old girls for less than 40 cents an hour in a country known for human rights violations.

Knight declines but remains congenial. Moore is indefatigable and tries to persuade the executive to open up a plant in Flint. Knight insists that Americans simply don't want to make shoes for a living.

"If I can find 500 people who want those jobs, will you come to Flint?" he asks.

Knight says he will "explore" the possibility, his smile wearing thin. While the cameras roll, he presents Moore with his very own pair of American-made black Nikes.

The scene that Moore didn't put in the movie is what immediately followed.

"Literally five minutes after they handed me those shoes, a PR person bursts in and says, 'They just discovered 35 bodies near San Diego. This cult committed mass suicide, and they're all wearing these black Nikes,' " Moore says.

The PR person politely suggested Moore give them back. Moore wouldn't hear of it.

"But I've been nervous about it," he says. "I've never put them on."

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