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The Big One

movie review by
Gary Johnson

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Michael Moore

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With Roger & Me, Michael Moore took on General Motors and exposed the devastating effects of corporate downsizing on his home town of Flint, Michigan. In his new movie, The Big One, Michael Moore moves beyond GM as he takes on a host of other large corporations that are producing record profits while eliminating jobs. Now, Michael Moore is after Nike, Proctor & Gamble, Johnson Controls, Pay Day candy bar, and a host of other companies.

In some ways, The Big One is a looser, lazier movie than Roger & Me. While Roger & Me, focused almost exclusively on GM, utilizing nostalgic educational and industrial film clips as an ironic counterpoint to the devastation wreaked by GM and their downsizing policies, The Big One is a wild and woolly document of the publicity tour for Michael Moore's book Downsize This! After the tour was underway, Moore called up some of the people he had worked with on Roger & Me and "TV Nation" and asked them if they could drop everything they were doing and join him on the tour. And join him they did. With funding by the BBC, the camera shutter started clicking again, capturing Mr. Moore as he handed out his "Downsizer of the Year" awards to Fortune 500 companies.

In addition, The Big One shows us as Mr. Moore investigates problems at companies such as Borders Bookstore, where workers in Des Moines, Iowa have to pay for health insurance even though their HMO has no doctors in Des Moines. Most notably, the movie also shows us as Michael Moore finally gets past the security guards and talks to a real corporate CEO--Phil Knight of Nike--and reveals that Nike shoes are produced in Indonesia, where girls as young as 14 years old work in the shoe factories.

At heart, Michael Moore is an intensely personal filmmaker--and that is what made Roger & Me so poignant, heart-breaking--and funny. He's not a documentary filmmaker in the traditional sense of the term because he isn't interested in simply reporting on the problems that he discovers in corporate America. Instead, he sees himself as the avenger of disenfranchised blue collar workers. He's after the companies that lay off workers and move jobs out of the country. He's after the companies that act without any responsibility toward the welfare of their workers. As he pushes his way inside the corporate offices, the companies responsible for putting people out of work respond with a mantra of "We have to remain competitive." But that doesn't satisfy Michael Moore. He isn't concerned with allowing the public relations managers to argue why corporate downsizing might possibly be beneficial. No, his primary purpose is to "stick it back" to corporate America. In his own words: "I want the average working Joe or Jane to be able to go to the movie theater and sit down and, for an hour and a half, laugh and feel like here's one for our side. They've been sticking it to me for years and now, here for 90 minutes, we're gonna stick it back. It's like payback time."

That's what makes Michael Moore's filmmaking so damn funny. While usually it's the workers who are sweating (about their own future), Mr. Moore turns the camera around and shows the corporations squirming. And he has no concern with giving the corporations equal time. Heck, they've been getting much more than equal time with all the tax breaks, free publicity, and other handouts from the communities that they have ultimately abandoned.

The Big One, however, lacks the poignancy of Roger & Me. You won’t find anything in The Big One as powerful as the scene from Roger & Me when a worker--now in a mental hospital--talked straight into the camera about getting laid off, and his eyes got misty when he talked about driving home after losing his job and hearing the Beach Boys' "Wouldn't It Be Nice" on the radio--at which point Moore allowed "Wouldn't It be Nice" to take over the soundtrack while he showed us the ghost town of businesses in downtown Flint, Michigan. It was one of the most poignant moments in American cinema of the past decade. And there's nothing remotely as chilling as the scenes from Roger & Me when a Flint deputy evicted tenants from their homes while explaining that he treats people "as they should be treated." At times The Big One feels a little too casual for its own good, without the sophisticated editing and image juxtapositions that made Roger & Me and "TV Nation" so fun to watch. It's the kind of movie that clearly wouldn't exist without Roger & Me having been made previously.

However, in terms of satisfying his own criteria--of "sticking it back" to corporate America--The Big One is a glorious success. The camera follows along as Michael Moore gives a check for 80 cents to Johnson Controls--to pay for the first hour of work by the laborers who will take over in the new Mexican factory. And we watch as Moore attacks the policy whereby the U.S. government gives out $170 billion in corporate welfare--three times the amount of money budgeted to social welfare--to help corporate America advertise in Third World countries: "Why does Pillsbury need $11 million in welfare for the doughboy?" he asks. Where Moore succeeds most effectively in The Big One is in showing how widespread the problems are that the American worker faces. He isn't just after GM this time around. Now, the problems he finds in corporate America are rampant. And the message is clear: we have to do something about this. We can't sit still any longer. We have to act. We have to mobilize and make corporate America responsible for their actions. If you're concerned about the future of the American blue collar worker, you owe it to yourself to see this movie.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]

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