The Big One
1998, PG-13, 96 min. Directed by Michael Moore.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., April 24, 1998
Michael Moore is fast becoming all things to all people. He is seriously in danger of becoming the new American Shmoo- you remember, that adorable, bottom-heavy, blobby thing in Li'l Abner that would shape-shift into anything that's sure to please its human host. Well, Moore is hardly quite that ego-less, but his routine as America's roving populist gadfly is a great act. In 1989's Roger & Me, we came to recognize him as that peskily dogged inquisitor of elusive corporate CEOs (namely GM's Roger Smith) and the quick-reflexed political satirist cum performance artist. In The Big One (which refers to Moore's idea for a new, more descriptive name for the United States), Moore more or less picks up where Roger & Me left off. Halfway through a 47-city book tour in 1996 to promote his bestseller Downsize This! Random Threats From an Unarmed America, Moore enlisted a small, down-and-dirty film crew to join him in his travels across America. In every city, Moore finds some corporate injustice to expose, some company bigwig to humiliate (though the reality is that his encounters are primarily with lower-echelon company flacks and security guards). Still, he has a knack for these guerrilla-style raids. In one city he'll be on a mission to speak directly to the corporate head of the Payday candy bar factory or Johnson Controls, where workers had just received layoff notices. In another, he's bonding with Borders bookstore clerks who are trying to form a union. In perhaps his biggest coup, Nike CEO Phil Knight invited Moore to come by while in Seattle, and their meeting provides the film's climax. We also witness a kinder, more gentle Moore than we've seen in the past, talking with fans, hugging a distraught woman who's just been pink-slipped, and impishly suffering the tribulations of a jam-packed book tour and the schoolmarmish local handlers that the publisher sics on him in each new location. Moore here also seems more the comedian, a satirist who knows a good barb when he sees one and finds laughter as essential to life as political analysis. Of course, with all the big bucks and celebrityhood that has come Moore's way since the phenomenal success of Roger & Me, Moore can probably afford a little more generosity of spirit. Still, it's hard not to become annoyed with his peripatetic demagoguery, stirring the masses one day but then moving on down the road before the brass tacks begin to penetrate. Being a professional rabble-rouser may lack definition as an occupational description, but it sure lays the groundwork for some spirited filmmaking. Certainly, much of The Big One is recycled material seen before in Roger & Me and TV Nation, but Moore now seems ready to accept his place as a popular entertainer. And though the film tends to ramble as the cameras follow Moore to and fro, we don't necessarily mind because The Big One knows how to put on a good road show.