A Different Movie, But Same Michael Moore
He hasn't changed a bit. Nine years after Michael Moore became a movie-world wonder with "Roger & Me," his blisteringly funny look at unemployment in a hard-hit Midwestern city, he is back with more of the same.
"The Big One," Moore's new Miramax release, aims another lively dose of skepticism at corporate executives, stock-market wizards, and others he feels are building comfy careers on the wreckage of working-class lives.
Like his earlier films and his "TV Nation" television series, it could make you squirm if you don't share his social, political, and economic views. Those ideas are plainly stated, though, with no hidden agendas or off-camera spin. Moore wants to raise a ruckus, and if that sparks argument as well as agreement, he's happy to stir things up.
Discussing his new movie in a spare corner of the New York apartment building where he's lived for several years, Moore presents himself as a somewhat reluctant movie star.
"The rule has always been: When in doubt, cut me out," he says with a smile, admitting that the rule disappears in "The Big One," which includes stand-up comedy by Moore as well as on-camera interviews and his patented confrontations with denizens of the corporate world.
The movie was filmed during Moore's promotional tour for "Downsize This! Random Threats From an Unarmed American," his bestselling book about the effects of American business on ordinary people. Scooting from one city to another, he found time for side trips with an adventurous camera crew and a string of spontaneous ideas for potentially revealing material.
As stitched together in the completed film, his odyssey ranges from union meetings at an Iowa bookstore and layoff day at an Illinois candy plant to the scene that "Roger & Me" never got to include: a face-to-face dialogue with a controversial corporate chief. In this case, it's Nike chairman Phil Knight, who justifies his exportation of US jobs to low-paid foreign workers by insisting that Americans, unemployed or not, "just don't want to make shoes."
Some portions of "Roger & Me" were attacked for poking fun at the everyday people Moore supposedly meant to support. "The Big One" invites a similar criticism, although here it is higher-level employees who bear the brunt of the film's most confrontational moments.
Moore defends these scenes by stating that corporate representatives are free to leave their jobs if their companies are treating workers unfairly.
"They have all these fancy phrases," he remarks, "like 'We have to remain competitive' and 'Our responsibility is to the shareholders.' But why can't you make a profit and be a good citizen at the same time? And why isn't anybody asking that very, very simple question?"
Part of Moore's anger comes from his conviction that too few observers are investigating the kinds of corporate decisionmaking that - he contends - have devastated cities like Flint, Mich., where "Roger & Me" was filmed.
"I think it's a sad commentary on journalism these days," he says, "that the simple questions I'm asking - about why you'd throw people out of work at a time when you're making record profits - are not being asked on the local news. Why are we not seeing this in our magazines, which just keep being cheerleaders for the 'great economic recovery'?
"It's kind of disgusting," he continues, "that a schlep [like me] in a baseball cap, with no college education, is the one going around and asking this question. That's why my [media work] seems fresh and original - because journalists aren't covering this!"
What's the biggest change Moore has observed in the years since "Roger & Me" launched his career?
"The growing gap between rich and poor," he promptly answers. "Right now, 68 percent of the kids in Flint qualify for federal food assistance - live in poverty, in other words. Personal bankruptcies are almost on a par with [rates] in the Great Depression. But we don't hear that statistic. We just hear about how great the stock market is doing.... When we filmed 'Roger & Me,' 1 percent of people owned 35 percent of the stock. Now 1 percent own 50 percent. That's what is really going on today ... and you see this kind of concentration in all kinds of businesses. It's not healthy."
Moore is delighted that Miramax Films, which distributes "The Big One," has agreed to donate 50 percent of the movie's profits to groups helping working-class causes. He also says that beneath the "anger and outrage" of his new picture, there's a real "sense of hope" for the future, thanks to his optimism about American youths.
"This next generation is not apathetic," he says. "They're hip and smart and very mad at us baby boomers. They come out of college with huge debts, and all they can find is a low-paying job. They're going to change things."