Friday, November 25, 2011

The Big One: Michael Moore's Understated Documentary That Is Anything But.

The Good: Funny, Entertaining, Moments of heartbreaking realism
The Bad: Lacks substance, cohesion, ultimate point, No (real) DVD bonus features
The Basics: When Michael Moore presents a documentary of one of his book tours, it lacks the cohesion of his other films and leaves the reviewer wanting more.

As those who read my many, many reviews will know, I am generally a fan of the films of Michael Moore. Indeed, I have enjoyed several of his books as well. And while I was not blown over by Bowling For Columbine I have found his films to be worth the time and (emotional) energy to watch. So, when it came time for me to sit down and watch the last film of his that I had not yet seen, I was eager. After all, I did not know a thing about The Big One when I sat down to view it on DVD; I was excited.

I wish I had saved that excitement for another time!

This documentary is almost the most literal form of documentary, it simply documents. Unlike other Moore films that have a clear goal, objective and/or thesis, The Big One is a rambling capture of the experience of following Michael Moore through a book tour. Moore is sent on a book tour from Random House and in the process uncovers corporate liars and greed.

Following the release of his book Downsize This: Random Threats From An Unarmed American, Michael Moore’s publishing company sends Moore on a book tour throughout the United States of America. In Moore’s working-class hero style, Moore travels to the places in the United States that had been left behind in the mid-1990s, middle America. There he finds workers struggling, being laid off and fired by companies that are showing record profits. Frustrated, he tries to confront the head of various companies in those cities and towns he is at in order to find out why protecting workers is not a priority for them.

The problem with the film is this: the back of the DVD package focuses the film in a way the movie never actually manages to achieve a point. According to the packaging, The Big One is about Michael Moore traveling through the Midwest and Central United States attempting to find a CEO, any CEO from a Fortune 500 company who will answer the questions: “If Fortune 500 companies are posting record-setting profits, why do they continue laying off thousands of workers?” Sounds like a decent movie, right? The problem with that is, that’s not what the movie actually is about.

Instead, this is a sprawling movie in which Moore chronicles his book tour, which incidentally happens to take him near enough to corporate headquarters’ and factories for major American businesses that coincidentally have massive layoffs right around the time of Moore’s visit! As a result, Moore will –for example – be driving around Chicago when he comes to the Leaf candy plant where he is planning to deliver a novelty check to the CEO of the company for putting workers out of work in a city he visited earlier. While on the grounds, Moore learns that Hershey has just announced that it bought Leaf and Moore tries to get back into the building. Things like that – companies being old, plants being closed, etc. – seem to happen frequently around Moore as he travels on his book tour, giving him great access to disgruntled workers.

The problem is, the story Moore is documenting never takes real focus. Moore does not pursue CEOs to ask them a single, unifying question. Instead, he annoys lackeys and assistants who work for the CEOs and he never quite nails them down to a decent answer because, in truth, they are not in a position to respond. There is one exception and that is with the CEO of Nike, who was cited specifically in “Downsize This!” and who invites Moore to meet him via a radio show Moore is appearing on to promote his book tour.

That is the most disturbing and direct interview in The Big One as the audience watches as the head of Nike flatly denies that using 14 year-old Indonesian labor is wrong. Moore is at his most biting when he begs the head of Nike for jobs for Flint, Michigan and tries to prove to the executive that Americans want to work (which he is unsuccessful in arguing, sadly!). But this is the most informative the film gets because he is the only person who actually has the authority to change the company represented in the movie and Moore’s efforts are a dismal failure.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am VERY much on the side of the working class. I am one of the few people on the site to gladly read and review The Communist Manifesto (reviewed here!) and when I was in politics, I was appealing to the poor (important note: if you want to be elected in the United States, you can’t campaign to the poor – they have no money to donate to keep your campaign afloat!). So my problems with The Big One do not stem from disliking the working-class folk who would benefit from Moore’s interventions and efforts, but rather from the movie’s lack of focus on that.

No, the problem with the movie is its general lack of focus. Instead of having a clear purpose and theme, the film rambles as Moore rambles around the country on his book tour. Far more than a social statement or a probe into working conditions, this is a film about Michael Moore. Those who liked, for example Fahrenheit 9/11 because it was about a case, an argument, with Moore simply narrating and walking the viewer through the evidence will likely be disappointed by The Big One, which is much more about Moore.

But, as a fan of Moore, I enjoyed much of the film. Moore captures himself doing his schtick quite well. He is funny, engaging and watching The Big One makes me wish I knew about him and his works when I was in high school and could have gone to one of his readings. The Big One presents Moore as almost a stand-up comic in his appearances and he is quite funny (which I knew from watching TV NationThe Big One includes a sub-plot about a Border’s Book Store unionizing (very undeveloped in the documentary) and another one about the 1996 Presidential Election which completely fails to tie the corporate greed from the rest of the film into the influence peddling in politics. Sure, it allows the movie to open strong with Moore’s story about the checks he wrote to the four major campaigns, but it ends up as a loose end.

Similarly, the side note on Steve Forbes is hilarious, but it doesn’t go anywhere. The result is the film ends up being Moore telling stories from his book, more explicitly illustrating some of the problems Downsize This! explores and just rambling without ending up as anything greater. It is a bunch of parts that do not add up to a significant sum. And frankly, as a fan of many of Moore’s works, I expect better from him.

As a side note, Moore is accused of being liberal as a result of The Big One, which I think is overstating it. He is certainly anti-capitalist (yea Michael!), but he represents very strong working-class values and the concept that has been around from the late 1800s that the Populists tried to use, namely the idea of responsibility with wealth. In that regard, The Big One is a big success; too bad the movie did not pound that point more!

For other documentaries by Michael Moore, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
Capitalism: A Love Story
Fahrenheit 9/11
Bowling For Columbine
Roger & Me


For other movie reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
| | |

No comments:

Post a Comment