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One Big Ego

[whitespace] The Big One
Ticket to Ride: Michael Moore presents Nike CEO Phillip Knight with a round-trip fare to Indonesia, where his factories employ 14-year-old-girls.

Michael Moore is full of himself in his new documentary, 'The Big One'

By Richard von Busack

It's not impossible to be both a bestselling author and a friend of the people. But thanks to the demands of populism, leftists always have to pretend they're ordinary folks, instead of following the old schoolhouse advice to just be themselves.

Michael Moore, best known for the 1989 documentary Roger & Me, recently wrote a column for The Nation supposing that ivory-tower left-wing intellectuals probably couldn't name a player on the Cleveland Indians if they tried. (As if, since the days of the free agent, you could remember who was playing where without a score card.)

It's irrelevant to demand that, say, Noam Chomsky ought to memorize batting averages, but like most critiques, Moore's complaint must have been directed inward as well as outward. In his new documentary, The Big One (opening April 10), Moore tries to prove what an everyday guy he is. He still eats at McDonald's and slouches around in Levi's and a baseball hat (brim forward, of course), even while selling lots of books.

The documentary records Moore's adventures during a publicity tour for his book Downsize This! Random Threats From an Unarmed American. This tour movie isn't without interest. Moore gets away from the heavily traveled coasts and heads for the heartland to see the grimness there. He brings the camera to see the newly laid-off workers from the Payday candy-bar factory in Centralia, Ill., and to watch a labor organization at Borders books.

The best moment comes when Moore encounters Phillip Knight, Nike's CEO. On camera, Moore presents Knight with a round-trip ticket to Indonesia, where his factories employ 14-year-old girls. "You haven't been to Indonesia? You'll love it," Moore urges Knight. When Knight demurs, Moore tries to get Knight to locate a factory in Flint, Mich., and even goes rounding up people for the camera who challenge Knight's insistence that "Americans don't want to make shoes."

Nike's revenues are up 42 percent from last year, and Michael Jordan makes more money endorsing the shoes in one year than the annual salary of all the 30,000 Indonesians who cobble them. So Knight isn't being picked on, and after all, he was sporting enough to meet the notorious Moore, who had referred to him as a corporate criminal in his informative but really chatty book.

Moore is asking many of the right questions; it's the way he asks them that makes The Big One so depressing. Roger & Me showed Moore as a genuine nobody with a big idea: he stalked Roger Smith, the chairman of General Motors, to ask him why he was laying off workers at the same time GM was making record profits. Still, Moore isn't the man he was nine years ago; since Roger & Me came out, he's had a network TV show, directed John Candy and written a bestseller.

Having become a national celebrity changes the effect he has on observers. He's a bolder man with a camera crew behind him and publicists to serve him. Moore's sympathy with the little guys hasn't changed, but he ought to realize he's not a little guy himself anymore.

The title of The Big One comes from Moore's joke that the U.S. ought to change its name to something more intimidating--something powerful and cinematic. It may be that Moore lost his way in the very bigness of the country. The best moments in Moore's show TV Nation were when he had a specific point to make.

Similarly, the best episodes in The Big One are small ones, including an interview at Minneapolis's Mall of America with a furious ex-prisoner who used to have a job answering the phones for an airline while he was in jail. (Always be polite when you deal with ticket-reservation clerks, Moore urges.)

Aside from such juicy moments, however, The Big One is shapeless, a nonfilm about Moore's nonbook. The film lacks the intimacy that Moore had with the subject matter in Roger & Me, which wove together the different threads of a dying auto town.

The alternative to Moore's guerrilla tactics isn't necessarily boring news. How is it that 60 Minutes, suit-owned as it is, seems to get to the crux of a problem faster than Moore these days? And at least Mike Wallace, that William Shatner of the world of journalism, is aware of what a mammoth ham he is.

Moore, at the various love fests he attends in The Big One, seems not to realize that his ego is showing. I completely agree with Moore's politics, and yet I still wonder what he's thinking when he has himself photographed hugging a newly laid-off fan. How can he let himself be shown basking in the love of college crowds, who laugh uproariously at his littlest jokes?

There is more self-love in this documentary than anything since Michael Apted captured the Everestine self-regard of Sting in Bring on the Night. When Moore is badgering security guards at companies that won't talk to him or making his publicists look like fools, he's not being a journalist or the little guy's friend--he's being a bully. Too often, The Big One is like one long 300-pound-gorilla joke.

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From the April 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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