The Common Good
July-August 1998

Aiming Above the Bottom Line

by Julie Polter | July-August 1998

Michael Moore's irreverent tour of American industry.

The Big One is a biting, funny, and sometimes odd combination of road film, populist rant, stand-up comedy, and the away-from-home video your quirky, know-it-all uncle might make if someone gave him the equipment and enough frequent flyer miles.

The premise is simple enough: Filmmaker Michael Moore (of Roger and Me fame) takes a video crew along on the promotional tour for his book Downsize This! (Crown Publishing, 1996). See Moore eat bad fast food. (Yuck.) See Moore commiserate with laid-off workers. (Poignant.) See Moore sing Bob Dylan and encounter an ex-convict who used to take reservations for TWA from in prison. (Scary!) See Moore visit various corporate headquarters in search of a CEO who will talk on camera about exactly why record profits seem to lead to employee lay-offs. (Can you say "No comment"?)

While Moore is not troubled by giving himself lots of camera time, the important thing is that he puts his ego (and money, and skill) in the service of what he believes. With profits from Roger and Me (the all-time highest grossing non-concert documentary), he set up the Center for Alternative Media, a foundation that has given funding to more than 40 independent filmmakers as well as social action and service groups. Miramax, distributor of The Big One, is giving half of all profits from this film to groups and scholarship funds that Moore supports in Flint, Michigan.

OF COURSE, GOOD intentions and progressive politics don’t necessarily have anything to do with good entertainment (alas). But The Big One is often hilarious, and is fresh and unusual film fare (not a doe-eyed Disney princess or gore-splattered, pseudo-complex hero in sight). And it puts the crimes and outrageous contradictions of our current economic and political systems in the viewer’s face. This is no small thing—those systems are as ever-present and taken for granted as the hum of appliances and electronics in an average American home.

Armed with pointed props—such as two round-trip tickets for Indonesia, so Nike CEO Phil Knight can see for himself the working conditions in Nike plants there—Moore asks the right questions but almost never gets a straight answer. While business may require tough choices, "We need to stay competitive" isn’t inherently justification for board room decisions that place peoples’ lives in the balance.

After being rebuffed by CEOs across the country, Moore is actually sought out by Phil Knight for a face-to-face meeting, on camera, at Nike’s headquarters. Cordial, tragically ridiculous, uneasy, the meeting is both an unexpected and sadly predictable ending to The Big One. Knight seems to very much mean it when he says he is no longer in the business for the money, but because he wants to make Nike the best company it can be. Yet he can’t quite answer how excellence can be built on a shoe manufacturing force that includes 14-year-old Indonesian girls working for a pittance. (In May, Knight announced Nike would not allow laborers to be younger than 18.)

oul-mouthed and irreverent, Moore does not claim to speak in the name of the Lord. But he comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable in a way that should be familiar to people who know the gospel and the words of the prophets. The Big One tells the truth about the way things are and challenges us to aim much higher than the bottom line. It might make you think; it might make you act. Best of all, it’s a little obnoxious and a lot funny. Now that’s a documentary for the people.

The Big One. Directed by Michael Moore. Released by Miramax, 1998.

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