NOTHING MICHAEL MOORE has done up to now (Roger & Me, TV Nation) will prepare you for the scene that caps his new doc, The Big One. In a jaw-dropping admission, Nike chairman Phil Knight says it wouldn't bother him to learn that his shoes were made by 14-year-old sweatshop workers. According to Moore, a Nike PR exec has since approached the filmmaker to have the scenes removed, asking, "What would it take?"
If this plot twist sounds too good to be true, the same could be said of Moore's carefully cultivated "schlub in a ball cap" myth, another product of his slanted-but-enchanting storytelling style. During our interview at the Minneapolis Hilton, the filmmaker seems at once more worldly and impassioned than his aw-shucks persona lets on, and surprisingly personable to boot. In a year when every Best Picture nominee dealt with class, the mass audience would seem well-primed for Moore's gadfly vs. Goliath shtick--which, in The Big One, means trying to butt corporate heads while rarely getting past the lobby.
CITY PAGES: Do you ever feel sorry for the security and PR people who have to deal with you?
MICHAEL MOORE: Sure. Usually in those situations, I'm thinking that the chairman doesn't have the guts to see me because he knows his position is indefensible. So he sends down these people. And I try to be as respectful as possible. But I have to say this: The majority of these publicists are former journalists with journalism degrees. They were supposed to tell the truth--that's why they went to school.
CP: I like the contrast between the PR people and the Borders employees, who are so real and enthusiastic. Those youngish organizers aren't normally what I think of when I hear "union."
MM: There's a union movement starting with [young] people your age. You went to college thinking you were gonna get a part of the American dream when you graduated. And what did you get? You still live at home; you have two or three roommates; your rent is 50 percent of your income. So I think your generation's gonna go, "Wait a minute. These baby-boomers fucked up."
CP: How's Flint doing these days?
MM: Not good. General Motors laid off more people this year, and 68 percent of the kids still live below the poverty level. It's rough.
CP: Do you feel guilty for not living there?
MM: No, no. I was supposed to get out. You know that scene in Good Will Hunting where Ben Affleck tells Matt Damon, "You dishonor us by staying here. You have a talent and we expect you to get out and use it"? That's what it was like for me leaving Flint. Everybody cheered. We still have a house in Michigan.
CP: Weren't you barking up the wrong tree when you wrote in The Nation that the left is out of touch with mass culture? It seems to me more like mass culture has co-opted the language and impulses of the left.
MM: What I meant was that the left is isolated from most Americans. They can keep meeting in the basement of the Unitarian church, talking to themselves, for all I care. I mean, I want to reach as wide an audience as possible. And the only way to do that in this society is to go on the networks that are owned by the Rupert Murdochs. Sure, the corporations are using us--not so much co-opting us, like Nike with "Revolution," but by believing there's a huge audience for subversive entertainment, for The Simpsons or TV Nation or whatever.
It's interesting. I mean, they believe our numbers are bigger than we do. And they should know, because they helped to create them. Corporate America downsized everyone, and they're saying, "Now you can go watch Mike on the screen tell a few jokes. After we've ruined your lives, we'll let you give us the finger back and feel good. Go ahead [soothing voice], it'll feel good." And they're just sitting back, laughing. I think these companies are convinced that the public is so dumbed-down and numbed-out that they won't go out and do something political. Of course, I'm counting on the opposite.
CP: What do you mean when you say at the end of the movie, "One evil empire down, one to go."
MM: This economic system will fall like communism fell. Every lie has a kernel of truth in it: There are kernels of capitalism that are good, that encourage creativity and initiative. And there are many kernels in socialism that are good: the safety net, the redistribution of wealth. I'm hoping someone's gonna propose a system that's the best of both worlds. I don't know what it would be [laughs]. I'm waiting for someone to really take me to task on that closing line because it's a fucking out-there, radical line.
CP: It reminded me of one of the last lines in Roger & Me, which is basically like, "Well, that's capitalism."
MM: Yeah [laughs]. I guess I wanted to end this movie a little more hopefully.
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