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Awesome: 14.81%
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Average: 3.7%
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Total Crap: 3.7%

3 reviews, 9 user ratings

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Big One, The
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by Jack Sommersby

"Michael Moore vs. Corporate America, Part 2"
4 stars

Better than the slightly-overpraised "Roger & Me" but lacking the telling observations of his "Bowling for Columbine". It's a mixed bag, but its many pros manage to outshine its few flaws.

During a 1996 nationwide book tour to promote his best-seller Downsize This, its author, Michael Moore, the award-winning filmmaker of the 1989 documentary Roger & Me, had the film crew he brought along shoot footage of the proceedings. The forty-eight-state/fifty-day tour Moore partook in was a grueling one: getting up at four in the morning to catch six-'o-clock flights to various cities to speak and sign books just short of Tendinitisville, and all while under the ever-watchful eyes of accompanying media escorts hired by Moore's publicist whose ever-most priority is keeping the author on schedule. As one escort notes, Moore is a rather difficult case, because he answers every question and signs every book put before him by his fans; he's always cutting things close, and you can't help but feel some sympathy for the escorts -- they're having to try to tame this incorrigible, slobbily-dressed ragamuffin who just happens to feel the utmost responsibility and accountability to his fans. And it's not just the signing and answering of questions that delay him -- it's the heartfelt stories told to him by people at the signings who've recently lost their long-held jobs at big companies that have just posted record-high profit earnings yet have still seen fit to lay workers off and ship those jobs to Mexico and overseas, where workers are paid less than a dollar an hour. This prompts Moore to make some detours along the tour: to the headquarters of the companies engaging in this outsourcing of U.S. jobs; on his way to a signing, he and his camera crew arrive unannounced at a lobby and request to speak to the CEO. Understandably, he irks the ire of the executives and security guards dispatched to deal with him. He also, understandably, turns the escort's job into a tenfold nightmare in the process.

At a ninety-minute running time, The Big One is smartly structured, compact, focused, and mercilessly funny. Moore is adamant about calling attention to the practice of outsourcing (which he sees as unctuous and heartless and indicative of insatiable greed on the part of CEOs) but not in an unbearably maudlin way -- he uses humor to accentuate and nail the points home. While in Milwaukee, he drops in at Johnson Controls, which has just netted half a million in profits yet has just shut down a factory, throwing hundreds out of work; unable to gain access to the CEO, Moore presents the man's assistant with a check for eighty cents to go to the first hour of work of the Mexican replacement's wage, and also a certificate for the Downsizer of the Year Award, which he presents to the company in whatever city he's in that's jettisoned the most U.S. jobs. When facing down an executive and human-resources supervisor at Proctor & Gamble (in the lobby, of course; Moore usually can't make it even as far as the elevator before being detained), he pointedly demands an answer as to how a company with a yearly six-billion-dollar profit can lay of thirteen-thousand workers over the last three years; the executive automatically denies the profit amount, until Moore presses her again, when she then is left to profess that the yearly profit is indeed six billion. There's more. Moore interviews a tattooed ex-con in the Mall of America, who explains how he worked for the ultra-cheap as a customer service representative for TWA while he was in prison; the point isn't lost that this convicted murderer not only was doing the job a non-incarcerated citizen could have been doing, but this very same prisoner (who proudly avers he's bereft of even a smidgen of a conscience) was privy to customers' private and personal information.

In between scenes such as these, Moore includes ones from his book tour, ranging from his escort's denial that musician Rick Nielsen is in town so Moore won't be inclined to deviate from the schedule to go see him (which he winds up doing), to a prank he pulls on an escort by sending her off on a fool's errand and telling a security guard that she's a stalker and shouldn't be allowed back in, to his willingness to make fun of himself when a fan encourages him to run for President and he replies with, "What would be the message? 'Eat Out More Often'?". If Moore's rock-the-establishment escapades had been the entire gist of the film, it'd have grown tiresome; with his keen film sense, however, he's managed to dexterously juxtapose all of the scenes into a highly entertaining whole where never a dull moment abounds. And if it seems his confrontations with executives aren't yielding anything, that he's covering the same old ground, then simply consider the stock answer he's always getting -- that outsourcing is simply a way for a company to "remain competitive". Moore doesn't cease and desist because he simply isn't buying it: if companies are hurting and making less in profits, than their outsourcing of jobs to bring down labor costs would have some validity; but since they're in fact earning record profits, the needs-to-remain-competitive angle doesn't stick. What holds more water is that companies are attracted to paying less for labor and thus use the savings to pass onto their executive salaries; or that, while making record profits, they might still not be netting as much as a competitor in their industry, and the goal of being top dog by whatever legal means necessary is an obligation they feel toward their shareholders, even though, again, record profits are still being made and American jobs at an American company are being shed.

Moore comes off less like an anti-capitalist and more like an impassioned populist who simply believes that big bidness (a term coined by columnist Molly Ivens) has a responsibility to its workers as well as its shareholders, that unnecessarily chucking American jobs for the sole sake of getting even more rich off the cheap labor of poorly-paid workers in other countries is morally and patriotically questionable. It's also a wee bit hypocritical, in his view, in that American companies are given hundreds of billions in tax breaks -- "corporate welfare", as he calls it -- and turning right around and deleting jobs for Americans whose taxes help pay for those breaks; he also takes the government to task for awarding this kind of welfare while cutting welfare benefits for people working multiple poorly-paid jobs just to make ends meet. And there's a honey of a revelation in that the bookstore chain Border's has forbidden their store employees in Des Moines from working Moore's book signing for fear that their current quest to establish a union (they're paid only $6/hr with no benefits) will gain publicity when coupled with Moore's own pro-union stance; not only does a note have to be secretly passed to Moore during a Border's signing from them to establish a secretive meet later that night, but once Moore starts championing their cause, Border's cancels his remaining book signings at their stores. Moore, though, might have pointed up the absurdity to all of this by inserting clips from spy thrillers into these scenes; the way it plays out is telling in itself, but it's too ripe with comic potential to just present in a matter-of-fact way -- though the case could be made that the facts here are indeed stranger than fiction. There are other scenes, too, where you wish for more of a barbed-skewering treatment, yet considering the points Moore manages to score from them regardless, this can be overlooked.

Where Moore scores his biggest points is his interview with Nike chairman Phil Knight of Nike, the first and only CEO to grant him an interview. Moore takes him to task for having virtually all of their shoes manufactured in Indonesia by teenage girls as young as fourteen earning less than $.40/hr, and the operation there being backed by a brutal government regime that committed genocide in East Timor. Knight comes across as an amiable, laid-back guy dressed in jeans and a pullover and donning a quasi-scruffy beard; he's perfectly at ease with himself and sees nothing wrong with the way he does business. Moore then proposes an offer: he'll tape a I-want-to-work ad with people from his hometown of Flint (where unemployment is hovering around the fifty-percent mark) to persuade Knight to open a factory there; Knight says he'll consider it. When Moore returns with a tape showing hundreds of people eagerly averring they'll be more than glad to work in a Nike factory, Knight, however, is far from receptive. He lamely claims that "Americans don't want to make shoes", when what he's clearly saying is "Americans don't want to make shoes for $.40/hr"; it's the standard fallback response that carries about as much weight as the equally lame claim that illegal Mexican immigrants work the jobs that "Americans don't want", when in reality it's jobs that "Americans won't work for subpar wages" (it's not the jobs themselves that are considered "menial", but their unsubstantial pay). This propels Moore to ask Knight the same question Charlie Sheen's stockbroker posed to Michael Douglas' corporate raider in 1987's Wall Street, "How much is enough?"; in Knight's case, would being half a billionaire instead of a billionaire still be acceptable if it meant giving Americans who buy his products factory jobs? Predictably, Knight refuses to answer, though it validates the answer Douglas' character gave: "It's a zero-sum game." In other words, with this much money, it's just a way to keep score, to allow one to bask in being richer than other rich members of the elite.

The Big One doesn't have the forcefulness and grit of the great Barbara Kopple's Oscar-winning American Dream, which detailed a Hormel meat-packer's strike in Minnesota over slashed wages and reduced benefits despite the company's recent outstanding annual profit; unlike Moore, Kopple lives with her subjects for months, if not years, during her filmings, so she's able to bring uncommonly canny observation and insight to her work. It's not that Moore lacks of empathy -- his upbringing in Flint was far from a silver-spoon one -- but he always seems outside the material here, as if he were a frat-party brat having fun and garnering attention at his subjects' expense; if he'd had the guts, he would have questioned on-camera if maybe, like Knight, he should sacrifice some of his own wealth to help out, say, his laid-off fans at the book signings. And he's unwilling to take to task non-corporate Americans on certain issues. When an unemployed Flint man boasts of having bought his son a pair of expensive Air Jordans from Nike, the question isn't put to him as to whether he'd stop buying Nike if he knew of the far-from-great workplace conditions they're manufactured in. If companies are supposed to be morally responsible for providing favorable workplace conditions, then aren't consumers equally morally responsible for not buying from those companies that don't? And what if the laid-off workers were in the CEO's place: would they be honestly willing to sacrifice millions or billions from their astronomic salaries to make work for their fellow Americans far less fortunate then they? And, if so, then does this indicate that only a rich CEO brought up by their very bootstraps can have a basic understanding and innate caring for their low-echelon workers?

Don't get me wrong: The Big One works, and it works well. But it leaves you with a fair share of nagging questions like these that you feel aren't addressed because Moore is too locked in to his desire to paint everything onto an easily accessible Us Versus Them canvas: it's the "common people" against the "corporate bigwigs", damnit, no ifs, ands, or buts! But who buys a company's products? Whose hard-earned dollars plunked down at the cash register ensure the luxurious lifestyles and livelihoods of CEOs of consumer-product businesses who lay off workers and ship them south of the border or across the great shining seas and treat their pets better than their employees? After learning of Wal-Mart's heinous treatment of its workers in regard to cheated overtime pay and sexual discrimination, wouldn't it be morally prudent to boycott them? (And, yes, to dispel a myth, a poor person can actually shop other places than Wal-Mart and still survive; I know, for I am one who does just that.) So if a company laid off workers in the name of outsourcing for the sole sake of fattening executives' already-fattened pocketbooks, wouldn't a nationwide boycott of their products and the embracing of the products of an American-worker-friendly company be worth engaging in? Then again, perhaps The Big One does indeed deserve merit in having brought those thoughts to mind; I strongly doubt Moore meant the film to act as a catalyst in doing this, but, inadvertently or not, credit where it's due, yes? By film's end, Moore still hasn't succeeded in ascertaining a definitive answer from the executives pertaining to the liquidation and exportation of American jobs, and that's probably because, when it comes right down to it, it's one they're unwilling to volunteer. Of course, for the film's audience members who've been paying attention, it doesn't need to be explicitly stated. Not by a longshot.

Should give those with an open mind (as well as a conscience) plenty to think about and discuss long after the ending credits have rolled.

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originally posted: 07/27/04 02:38:37
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User Comments

9/03/05 ES Detailing Pride Greed and Vanity amoung America's elite and in moore himself 4 stars
11/12/04 Steven Votaw Michael is focus of camera. Editing helps drive point not facts. Film serves man. 3 stars
8/02/04 John Aster Habig Broader than Roger & Me and just as hard hitting first scene is awesome 5 stars
6/23/04 Jack Sommersby Solid, focused, and persuasive -- and very entertaining. 4 stars
4/15/04 Agent Sands Not as good as "Bowling," but a wee bit better than "Roger." Effective. 4 stars
2/27/04 Charles Tatum Yeah, damn, who distributed this again? 1 stars
12/09/03 john unfortunately a very accurate account of corporate politics - excellent and insightful film 5 stars
12/17/02 Interrog8 Michael Moore is a genius, and this proves it. 5 stars
6/15/00 LEVI ALVARES Claude It's an essential film about the world in which we live. It's provocative, funny and sad. 5 stars
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  10-Apr-1997 (PG-13)
  DVD: 28-Sep-2004



Directed by
  Michael Moore

Written by
  Michael Moore

  Michael Moore
  Rick Nielsen
  Phil Knight
  Garrison Keillor
  Studs Terkel

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