[1 November 2004]
Capitalizing on Fahrenheit 9/11‘s recent DVD release, MGM has packaged Michael Moore’s films, The Big One (1997) and Bowling for Columbine (2003), into a box set titled Michael Moore DVD Collector’s Set. Most people haven’t seen The Big One, and there’s a reason for that. Ostensibly a documentary on Moore’s 1996 book tour for Downsize This!, it soon transforms into a chronicle of the evils of corporate America. Moore never makes a particular case (that’s all in the book), but instead offers up a series of encounters. One minute he’s signing books in Milwaukee, the next he’s interviewing workers laid off by a Payday candy bar factory in Centralia, Illinois. He’s at Media Play in one scene, the corporate offices of Johnson Controls in the next.
The Big One is messy and misguided, but offers enough affecting scenes to be compelling viewing. It opens with a scene from one of Moore’s speaking engagements, where he asserts that U.S. presidential candidates will accept money from anybody. To make that case, he reports that he invented a number of companies—for instance, “Pedophiles for Free Trade” and “Abortionists for Buchanan”—and sent $100 checks to the candidates in those companies’ names. As Moore tells it, Ross Perot’s campaign sent back a form letter saying, “Thanks to you and your fellow pedophiles!”
Moore goes on to raise some alarming points (Pillsbury receives $11 million annually from U.S. taxpayers to promote the Pillsbury Doughboy in other countries), but really hits his target when Nike CEO Phil Knight agrees to meet with him. Moore is shocked, as he should be, because he’s planning to confront Knight about the Indonesian labor force that makes Nike shoes for 40 cents an hour. The scene plays out as you might expect: Knight argues, ridiculously, that Americans don’t “want” to make shoes. Ready for that answer, Moore asks him to build a Nike factory in Flint, Michigan, where the unemployment rate is sky-high after the General Motors plant closing (the subject of Moore’s 1989 film, Roger & Me). Knight agrees to “look into it,” but after Moore gathers hundreds of Flint residents for a rally, begging Nike to build a plant there, he laughs and refuses to do so.
While entertaining and thought-provoking, like all of Moore’s work, The Big One shows a filmmaker still seeking his voice. He finds it in Bowling for Columbine, winner of the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2003, and offered up here as a two-disc set (the second disc containing hours additional interviews and appearances from the filmmaker). An investigation of U.S. gun culture, Columbine asks why the U.S. is more violent than other nations. The film’s most effective device is Moore’s own lack of answers; he sets up argument after argument, only to see each one crumble in the face of evidence and reality.
Though other countries have similar or more violent histories, and often import violent U.S. media images, none has so high a gun death rate as the U.S.—over 11,000 annually. Moore looks into proportions of gun ownership, only to discover that Canadians own as many as U.S. citizens, and their death rates by firearms are almost nil. Although Moore never quite answers the question he’s posed, he does note a major difference between the U.S. and other nations. Americans are taught to be afraid, Moore asserts, by the nightly news, advertising, and other media. It is this “culture of fear,” he concludes, that exacerbates gun violence.
Some of Columbine‘s strongest moments are occasioned by Moore’s comic consideration of the absurdities of gun culture. Early in the film, he finds an ad in a Michigan newspaper for a bank that will give you a gun if you open an account. When Moore decides to take the bank up on the offer, he looks appropriately stunned at just how easily he gets his firearm. After seemingly no more than an hour, Moore has his new account, and his brand new rifle. It’s an astounding scene, though less astounding when one takes into account that it was mostly fabricated. The reality of the situation is that a customer would wait an additional day to retrieve his firearm, and even then, be required to travel to a gun shop to pick it up.
Inevitably, Moore finds his way to Littleton, Colorado, the site of the 1999 school shooting. (The footage and personal stories of the Columbine High School students are riveting and heartbreaking.) Less than a year after this shooting, another occurs in a town close to Flint; a six-year-old boy kills a six-year-old little girl, Kayla Rolland. Charlton Heston, Moore tells us, holds NRA rallies after the shootings, in the very same cities. Moore implies that the rallies take place almost immediately after the tragedies, and admittedly the Denver rally did take place just 10 days after the Columbine shooting (although the footage Moore uses is from another Heston speech given a year later). But the Michigan assembly was held a full eight months after the Rowland shooting, and was a “get-out-the-vote” rally rather than an NRA gathering.
Moore is surely a controversial figure, but his skills as a filmmaker are first rate. These very skills, however, often land Moore in much trouble. His skills are many—deft editing, good timing, and a gift for storytelling. But when he applies these to a supposedly fact-based documentary, inaccuracies and comedy can be distracting, giving the impression that he is not to be taken seriously. What makes Moore so appealing as a speaker and filmmaker is also his undoing as a journalist.
In one of Columbine‘s most rewarding scenes, Moore travels to Kmart’s corporate headquarters with two Columbine victims, Mark Taylor and Richard Castaldo, along with local journalists. Taylor still has bullets, bought at Kmart by the shooters, embedded in his body. The group confronts Kmart executives about the sale of ammunition at their stores, and eventually, a Kmart representative announces that the retail giant will begin phasing out the sale of bullets within 90 days. Moore seems genuinely stunned at the announcement. The moment reveals a power that he as come to wield regularly as an activist.