Travels with Mikey

Michael Moore's ego is The Big One in his new documentary

Moore's attacks were sharper, his stunts snappier on TV Nation--perhaps because Moore has a video-fed imagination. In TV Nation he pushed baby boomers' buttons about achieving liberty and justice in a kind of social free-for-all. What actually unites Americans is our boob-tube frame of reference: Moore exploited everything from Steve Allen-like man-in-the-street interviews to mock polls at commercial breaks to put across the idea that TV Nation was the real Woodstock Nation. And TV Nation featured marvelous supporting players, including Janeane Garofalo and Rusty Cundieff (the black writer/director of Tales From the Hood and Fear of a Black Hat).

Unfortunately, Moore is the whole show in The Big One, and he gives you plenty of time to study his biases and limitations. You begin to wonder whether he doesn't enjoy browbeating middlemen (and middlewomen). He excoriates CEOs and embraces the laid-off, but he's downright demeaning to the upwardly mobile middle-class, including most of his "media escorts," local publicists who keep him on schedule in each city. (In a particularly unfunny joke, he identifies one of them as a stalker to a security guard.) He decides to go to Rockford, Illinois, because Money magazine pegged it as the worst city in America (like Flint a few years back). The high point of his trip comes when he sings "The Times They Are a-Changin'" with Rockford native Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick. Didn't the demagogue in Elia Kazan's prescient, half-brilliant A Face in the Crowd strum a guitar and tell jokes too? Moore spends too much of his time in Rockford poking fun at an audio, video, and book chain store named Media Play, largely because the woman in charge is a font of misinformation. (Actually, Media Play can be a useful store for a town to have--I bought my copy of Downsize This! at a Media Play in an area of central Connecticut depressed by dwindling airplane and insurance companies.) In Roger & Me, Moore twitted Flint's crude native son, game-show host Bob Eubanks; in The Big One, he thinks it's witty to say that Rockford's celebrity equivalent is actress Susan St. James. But St. James is a charming comedienne, undeserving of the scorn earned by that bad joke Eubanks in Roger & Me.

The best break Moore gets in The Big One comes when Nike CEO Phil Knight invites him into the executive suite, although Moore had branded him a "corporate crook" in Downsize This! When Moore asks Knight how he could make shoes in Indonesia, knowing that Indonesian soldiers committed near-genocide in East Timor, Knight replies, "How many people were killed in the Cultural Revolution?" Not a bad riposte; Moore doesn't target Nike competitors (like, say, Converse) that make their running shoes under the red flag. U.S. partnership with China is too complex an issue for Moore to handle with his typical baggy-pants comedy. And Knight states flat-out that American workers don't want to manufacture shoes. But rather than explore Knight's conviction, Moore comes up with one of his grandstand plays--staging a demonstration in Flint to prove Knight wrong. Scores of unemployed show up to face local TV cameras and ask Knight for jobs. But are they enough to sustain a factory? Would they really be happy with such low-paying, painstaking work? Moore fails to convince Knight, and he may leave doubts in the audience too.

The only minutes I enjoyed unequivocally came with the appearance of the legendary Chicago radio interviewer Studs Terkel. The true print and broadcast bard of the American worker, Terkel lifts the movie to a higher plane. During a show with Moore, he plays a song from a 60-year-old Flint sit-down strike, and gets his guest to talk about an uncle who participated in it. Terkel turns the caricature "Michael Moore" into a thoughtful human being. That's the opposite of what Moore does to his subjects--and himself.

The Big One.
A documentary directed and written by Michael Moore. Opens Friday.

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