The Big One (1998)

D: Michael Moore

A good substitute title for Michael Moore's first documentary feature since Roger & Me might be "Michael Moore's America: Or How I Plugged my Book With a Series of Topical Publicity Stunts." Much as we would like to believe that Moore has the best of intentions with his confrontational ambushes of corporate underlings and security guards, and certain as we are that he has raised awareness among television viewers of certain situations within the United States which require attention and even change with TV Nation and The Awful Truth, there is a sense that at the heart of The Big One is a rather superficial and cynical attempt to sell not only Moore's bestselling book Downsize This! , but himself. He tells us along the way that the title refers to what he feels should be the official name of the United States, but it equally applies to himself, of course, and the film sells him as a blue-collar avenger perhaps moreso than anything else. This was arguably true of Roger & Me as well, but in that film this was an important part of the context within which the attack upon General Motors and its effect upon Flint, Michigan.

The Big One follows Moore on his U.S. tour with Random House to publicise Downsize This! He uses the opportunity and the travel budget to harass a variety of corporations in his now familiar style. The film has no particular structure, and no real point other than what is obvious from the outset. Unlike Roger & Me, the film does not develop its situation and reach its climax with a confrontation with anyone in particular. In fact Moore has his thunder stolen when the chairman of Nike agrees to meet him and even agrees to make a charitable donation to Flint workers (Moore challenges him to open a factory, but like many of his gambits, it is one without any possibility of success and he knows it). Along the way there are several amusing bits and pieces, and each individual city gets its troubles aired insofar as they co-incide with Moore's itinerary. But while there are plaudits to be given for an attempt to highlight the problems of the American working class, and while everyone likes to see corporations getting a going over, this is not so much a film as a feature length compilation of schoolboy escapades, none of which are given sufficient elaboration or analysis for any real depth or to make them any different from a segment of one of Moore's TV shows. It is also difficult to escape the conclusion that though he may have some good intentions in doing what he does, that it is in his best interests to generate controversy that will sell the book, albeit topical and possibly socially beneficial controversy (though that too is arguable given the difficulty of finding out what effect Moore's actions have had in any given situation).

The film is punctuated with what amount to a series of stand up routines by Moore (mostly scenes from public talks given to promote the book), some of which are funny, all of which are social-themed, but which again raise the question of just what this film is all about. It becomes a vanity exercise which really does less for the American worker than it appears to think it does, and spends its time instead selling Moore as a great media champion for their cause. This too may be worthwhile, because at least there is someone saying these things. But then it is doubtful that what he does is really of any importance, given that the majority of individuals he hassles and humiliates are security guards, publicity persons or minor functionaries. Is this really the way to bring about social change? Roger & Me was more than just a gimmick. His confrontations with these kinds of people were funny, but there were also more of them and they were integral to an entire film which added up to a comprehensive look at its subject. Moore was also familiar enough with Flint to create and sustain a convincing argument rooted in local economic and social issues (though there have been various criticisms of his treatment of the timeline and his presentation of evidence). The Big One is random and scattershot, with no real sense of America at its centre the way Flint was at the centre of Roger & Me. There is certainly a sense of Moore, though that may not be enough justification for the film.

Students of documentary will find it of some interest. Casual viewers will get a kick out of Moore's sense of humour. But there is much less to the film than might have been, and it really suggests that this particular film maker is by now far too satisfied with himself to stretch his technique to more ambitious and comprehensive examination of his subjects.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.