REVIEW / Reflecting fools at twice their natural size

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MICHAEL Moore trades on his size. Armed with microphone and camera, he's the little guy asking the big questions, like 'Bosnia . . . what, what, what is going on?' Actually, for a little guy he's quite big - a hulking blue-collar bullfrog in wide-angle specs and a baseball cap. And for a big guy asking big questions, he gets pathetically little answers.

As was clear from Roger and Me, that cute documentary in which he pursued the General Motors boss whose industrial belt-tightening had caused havoc in his home town, Moore's speciality is failure. He sends himself on mission impossible, doesn't come back with the goods, but makes great solipsistic television.

The format has been transplanted to Michael Moore's TV Nation (BBC 2), in which our intrepid reporter hilariously attempts to do things like find and redirect the CIS missile aimed directly at his home town. At a Yeltsin rally in Red Square, he holds up a placard bearing the slogan, 'No Nukeski Flintski'.

In last night's opening piece, Moore commuted between the Serbian and Croatian embassies in Washington in a battered Yugo. His task: to solve this crisis once and for all. When he got there he asked the key questions: 'Why don't you just pick up the phone and start talking?' 'What is ethnic cleansing?' 'What's your favourite Bob Dylan record?' His interrogative style thrives on a reductio ad absurdum in which Moore pretends to be an idiot in order to bring out the idiocy in others. 'You know you got the nicest colour,' he tells the Serbian diplomat who's deciphering the map of Bosnia for him. 'Nobody wants to be orange.' When he gets to the Croats' place, it turns out that they've given themselves the same colour. In an odd way, Moore successfully boils Bosnia down to its pettiest essence: 'Everybody wants blue' - more and more of it.

In his own banality, Moore holds a mirror to people too self-important to recognise their reflection. When he tried to break the ice by arriving with food and drink, the Serbs dived willingly into the visual metaphor. A sliced-up pizza sat on the table, representing the former federation: 'Bosnia-Herzegovina consists of three different ingredients,' a diplomat explained, 'ham, cheese and pepperoni.' And Moore just strung him along: 'The Serbs are the cheese, right?'

He doesn't front all the reports. Other presenters filed hilarious stories about the privately run prison in Minnesota with, as yet, no inmates; about the difficulty blacks have flagging down taxis in Manhattan; and a brilliant piece - possibly a misplaced April Fool - about brokers who buy and sell the life insurance policies of people with Aids.

Moore probably wouldn't have got much change out of this one, so a wide- eyed young woman reporter, the kind middle-aged men who chuckle and rub their hands together can confide in, went instead. The mechanics of this business is simple: you buy a policy on the cheap that you just know is about to mature, so a chunky profit margin is literally a dead cert. The investors tell themselves that they are helping to alleviate the financial burden of the sufferer. And when the

victim dies, explained one investor, 'You're sad, but you have your money to console you.'

One broker, who called his business Vultures Inc, claimed to have had an out- of-body experience in which all the victims he had succoured came to greet him when he went to heaven. That story doesn't square too easily with the Texas state representative who, when asked about the possibility of a cure for Aids, said, 'There's no evidence of any cure on the horizon; at the moment there's no risk factor.' Only in America can you invest in death.