Film Reviews

Travels with Mikey

If nothing else, the current edition of Michael Moore's continuing self-love fest does have a great subject: the desperation hidden inside a "thriving" U.S. economy. While politicians and financial wizards point to unemployment on the wane and profits on the rise, Moore notes that the largest employer in the country is a temp agency: a mammoth one called Manpower Inc. In Moore's view, cost-cutting and downsizing have led to insecurity and scrambling in the work force and a tense, wired feeling in the street. Moore's message is as simple as an anthem, but it has an honest ring to it. Everyone I know who could be classified as an "employee," including every journalist, keeps looking for a backup job or an escape hatch--for both the additional paycheck and protection from executive caprice. The virtue of a picaresque documentary like The Big One--which could have been called Travels with Mikey--is that it invites audiences to sharpen their perceptions rather than drift along with the mass media's 24-hour-a-day snow job.

But Moore is a snowman too: His populism translates into a lowest-common-denominator radicalism. Unlike high-toned left-wingers, he isn't afraid of McDonald's; unlike folkies, he isn't afraid of television. But his attention-getting ploys have as much lasting benefit as a Big Mac or a soundbite. He's a pop impresario peddling his own slovenly mystique. Moore packages himself into a new, casual stereotype: the Common Guy. And I do mean package. Although Roger & Me (1990), his first-person chronicle of life in the devastated GM factory town of Flint, Michigan, won comparisons to Mark Twain, it was an impersonal kind of personal movie. You got to know Moore--the "Me" of the title--only as well as he pretended to let you know him. He came across as a Me-Generation-style leftist struggling to encompass We, the People as the quintessential Middle American homeboy. He did give us appealing (if calculated) details: He was the first in generations of Moores not to work at GM; his family thought he was weird ever since he crawled backward at the age of 2. But in general, he's purveyed the same jolly view of growing up Amurrican in the '50s and early '60s that you also get in the films of Oliver Stone (or in the rantings of right-wing radio)--as if the Eisenhower-Kennedy eras were a time when everyone didn't worry and was happy, and as if only capitalist greed and obfuscation have prevented our return to that state of innocence.

The Big One is essentially a promo. It centers on Moore's 1996 tour to publicize his book Downsize This! Random Threats From an Unarmed American. It overflows with routines right out of the book, including an interview with a Steve Forbes campaign coordinator on the subject of whether Forbes is an alien. Moore's evidence is that Forbes never blinks. (Did Moore shoot the Forbes footage himself, before he started making the movie? Or was the footage shot, as the book suggests, by students at an Iowa State TV station? As usual with Moore, it's hard to pin down the chronology.) However amusing it may be, the Forbes bit illustrates the thinness of Moore's topical humor--he says Forbes disappeared after the '96 primaries, but he's all over the newspapers right now.

Moore tells us that he decided to use his tour to explore the state of the nation, but his own media persona is so expansive that it covers the map like a blob. He's almost always center-screen, an endomorphic Everyman in work shirts and jeans and a variety of baseball caps. His defining moment comes when he unwraps his fillet-of-fish sandwich and mutters, "They put vegetables on my fish fillet...Fuck 'em." That's our Mikey, a real meat-and-potatoes (or fish-and-French-fries) guy. When it comes to grandiose egomania, The Big One doesn't pursue Downsize This!'s program for starting "Mike's Militia," whose tenets can be summarized as Michael Moore, Live Like Him. But it does buck up his pose as a provocateur for the proletariat.

Moore specializes in a frayed seat-of-the-pants version of the 60 Minutes sneak attack. He and his crew arrive unannounced at a corporate headquarters and demand to see the CEO. They want to protest plant closures and the "corporate welfare" the government hands out to promote American business abroad. Instead, inevitably, Moore ends up haranguing some hapless spokesperson. Fans of Moore's television series TV Nation (by far his liveliest work) are familiar with his shtick of embellishing these occasions with props--mock prizes and so forth. In The Big One, he presents one company with a giant check for 80 cents, to pay for its first Mexican worker's first hour of labor, and another company with a giant check for 65 cents, to pay for the last PayDay candy bar made in the confection's longtime home of Centralia, Illinois. Moore turns himself into the human version of what is arguably his most popular creation, Crackers, the Corporate Crime-Fighting Chicken.

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Michael Sragow