Michael Moore's First Aid

With "SiCKO", the populist filmmaker reaches broader horizons

By Omar P.L. Moore  |   The Popcorn Reel

May 27, 2007

Michael Moore with a doctor in England, during a scene from "SiCKO", which opens on June 29 in the U.S. and Canada.  A week later the film opens in Finland, and in October will open in France, one of the countries the director visits in the film.  (Photo: The Weinstein Company)

So often he has been called a polemicist, a provocateur, a political lightning rod and other words beginning with "p" that are more unsavory.  But after six films, all but one of them documentaries, Michael Moore can certainly be called a populist, for his movies, especially "Bowling For Columbine" and "Fahrenheit 9/11", have galvanized people around the world and most especially sparked a renewed consciousness in many people across America, people who are raising critical questions about the way American government has gone about its business in relation to its citizenry as well as other countries. 

With "SiCKO", which opens in the United States on June 29 and in Finland on July 6 before opening elsewhere in October and November, Mr. Moore is likely to galvanize even more people in America.  "SiCKO" will arguably have the most broad appeal yet as it centers on the U.S. healthcare industry, something everyone living in the United States can relate to -- even if they don't have health insurance.  At last count, close to 50 million people in the U.S. are without health insurance, almost 20% of the population.  Mr. Moore's latest documentary however, hones in on those who do have insurance and the quandaries they are embroiled in when their insurer turns their back on them.  Numerous stories, including that of a man who died after being denied a bone marrow treatment by an HMO (health maintenance organization) punctuate "SiCKO", which is the first Moore documentary to get a rating from the Motion Picture Association of America that isn't an R (restricted rating).  "SiCKO" will be released in the U.S. with a PG-13 rating, "for brief strong language."

The film has received an avalanche of publicity even before its positive reception at this year's Cannes Film Festival, mainly due to the U.S. Treasury Department's investigation into whether the 53-year-old filmmaker broke the law in March 2007 when he took three September 11 rescue workers to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba in search of treatment for the workers' respiratory ailments.  Mr. Moore has said that he had never intended to take the ill workers to Cuba.  "The point was not to go to Cuba, it was to go to America, it was to go to American soil to Guantanamo Bay and to take the 9/11 workers there to receive the same healthcare that they're giving the Al-Qaeda detainees," Mr. Moore said at a post-screening press conference at Cannes in May.  After unsuccessfully attempting to get care for the rescue workers at Guantanamo Bay, or "Gitmo", as it has been colloqually known, the director and the three rescue workers went to a hospital in Cuba.  All three workers were treated for free in and amongst ordinary Cuban patients and received no special treatment or preferences over the citizenry at the hospital in the wake of the filmmaker's presence and the presence of cameras.  "I made a documentary that's a work of journalism.  The law says that journalists can go to Cuba.  You don't need permission, you don't need a license or anything . . . I'm going to fight this and they're not going to get away with it," said the director in a cable television interview.

Recent reports have said that the Treasury Department is also investigating the three workers for taking the journey to Cuba, and Mr. Moore's website contains a quote from the director, who says he will defend them with all the resources he has.  In turn, U.S. congressman Jose Serrano from the South Bronx in New York City has pledged to support the director with resources and backing in the government investigation of the filmmaker.

Photo of Fahrenheit 9/11,
Hand in hand: the director and his target on a movie poster for the 2004 film. (Poster: LionsGate Films)  Right: Kathleen Glynn, film producer, standing next to a poster of her husband, at an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences event in 2006 in Beverly Hills, California.  (Photo: AMPAS)

The "SiCKO" phenomenon is taking on a life of its own, with publicity blitzes featuring the director.  Mr. Moore had been as quiet as a mouse around "SiCKO", but after the government investigation and with Cannes ensuing, interview opportunities with Entertainment Weekly and Time Magazine were too good to pass up.  In the interview with EW's Daniel Fierman, Mr. Moore said that he had lost 25 pounds, and that his sugar level was 90 and blood pressure was 110 over 60.  He has promised that audiences who see "SiCKO" will be outraged, not depressed by what he has chronicled.  A special response blog area on the movie's website indicates that the Academy Award-winning director is right.  Several people have already posted their own horror stories about their experiences with the various U.S. healthcare providers and there will probably be many more stories, as international visitors to the movie's site are also invited to post their stories.  The film's trailer, which was released on May 24 on the Internet (including being displayed on this publication's website's home page) begins with the chief target of the director's ire from previous films -- the commander-in-chief Bush -- during a campaign speech featuring another of his malapropisms: "too many OB-GYN's aren't able to practice their love with women all across this country!"

"SiCKO" sees Mr. Moore travel to France, England, and Canada in addition to Cuba to assess the state of the healthcare systems in those nations.  Some Canadians have decried the rose-colored picture he paints of their national healthcare system, or "socialized medicine", citing that waiting times for treatment can be much longer than the 10 to 20 minutes that is stated in the film.  When coming up against this challenge, Mr. Moore throws a challenge back: "would you trade your Canadian health care system for an American one?"  The answer the filmmaker gets is always in the negative.  "SiCKO" includes the testimony of Dr. Linda Peeno, a former healthcare physician for Humana, who in 1996 testified before Congress that she was ordered by superiors in the healthcare company to refuse a heart transplant to a man who later died.  Dr. Peeno is now a healthcare ethics consultant.  (A film on her aired on Showtime cable television in 2002.  Laura Dern played Peeno in the film.)  There is also a scene in "SiCKO" on a man whom a hospital presented an unenviable choice: have surgery to re-attach his middle finger for $60,000, or have surgery to re-attach his left ring finger for $12,000.  The director's voice-over then chimes: "being the romantic, Rick chose the ring finger -- for a bargain price of $12,000."

"SiCKO" was two years in the making, and Moore does not appear in the new documentary until almost 45 minutes in.  (For some reason there is always a focus by some in the mainstream media on the director being too much a part of his films.)  The filmmaker himself who was once unknown when "Roger & Me" emerged on the scene almost two decades ago, thus putting himself in many scenes of that film.  Now older and wiser, the director is a little more introspective.  "I . . . think a little of me goes a long way," said Moore in the EW interview when addressing the issue of his presence.  "For some reason I'm not watchable," he joked earlier.  (One only wonders whether a woman making a documentary who made an ever-present business of placing herself in a number of scenes in her documentaries would receive the same type of criticism that Mr. Moore has.)

Michael Moore's films have a sense of cruel irony and pain to them, but the irony is based on the stranger than fiction aspect of life itself.  Hard rock musician Marilyn Mansion cited an irony in the violence at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado in his appearance on camera in "Bowling For Columbine", while the then-U.S. president Bill Clinton was conducting air-strikes in Kosovo -- in fact the largest number of bombs dropped by the U.S. on a single day during any point of that war -- this on the very same day that the April 20, 1999 high school shooting occurred.  And in "Fahrenheit 9/11" near the film's start, video footage of the certification of Mr. Bush's election by a joint session of the U.S. House and Senate in January 2001 shows former vice president Al Gore presiding over the confirmation of his own losing presidential candidacy, in the capacity of President of the Senate.  And near the end of "Fahrenheit", Moore says solemnly of young U.S. soldiers: "I've always been amazed that the very people forced to live in the worst parts of town, go to the worst schools, and have it the hardest, are always the first to step up to defend that very system.  They serve so that we don't have to.  They offer to give up their lives so that we can be free.  It is remarkable, their gift to us.  And all they ask for in return is that we never send them into harm's way unless it's absolutely necessary." 

The poster for Mr. Moore's new documentary.  (Poster: The Weinstein Company)

When Mr. Moore made "Fahrenheit 9/11" it was his stated intention that the film have an effect on the 2004 elections, namely the desire to see Americans vote Mr. Bush out of office, an office the director felt that Mr. Bush obtained unlawfully.  "I think that in hindsight [Fahrenheit 9/11] was the beginning of the end for Mr. Bush," said Moore during the interview with EW.  Despite large audiences throughout the United States, the documentary did not succeed in helping to vote out Mr. Bush from the White House, but now the president's popularity has been at an all-time low for the better part of the last nine months, due mostly to the invasion of Iraq and Hurricane Katrina.

And in one other irony, it was one of Mr. Bush's cousins who was responsible for teaching Mr. Moore how to make films, an episode which the filmmaker chronicles in one of his books.

Mr. Moore's detractors cite a number of inconsistencies about him.  While he hails from Flint, Michigan (his films have continuously focused on the blue-collar American town), he was actually raised in Davison, a city five miles east of Flint.  His family and relatives still live in Davison.  Though Mr. Moore calls himself a liberal in political ideology he doesn't shy away from publicly criticizing Democratic politicians in America and spares no quarter in his latest film.  In one speech in Denver before a group of college students he called the Democratic party "the most lamest excuse for a party that ever existed."  And in his best-selling 2003 book Dude, Where's My Country?  Mr. Moore opines that jailed Pennsylvania journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal -- on death row for allegedly murdering a police officer in the early 1980's, a crime that Mr. Abu-Jamal has insisted for years he is innocent of -- "probably killed that guy [Officer Daniel Faulkner]."  Moore's statement and others surrounding it, appear on page 189 of the book in a chapter on how to talk effectively to conservatives.  In 2004, when this reporter asked Mr. Moore about the statement in the book during the filmmaker's appearance in New York City, he said that he didn't know whether Mr. Abu-Jamal was guilty, and regretted making the statement, which he said was meant as "satirical".  Mr. Moore had met with several civil rights groups and grass roots activists at the time to clear the air about his statement.  Ironically, several years earlier Mr. Moore's name appeared among a list of signatories on a full-page ad in the New York Times in 1995 demanding that Mr. Abu-Jamal, an African-American, receive a new trial.

The director has criticized Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate and presidential candidate that Mr. Moore formerly worked for and once vigorously supported and endorsed, for costing Al Gore the presidency in 2000, by not backing out of the presidential race as a third party candidate.  Initially in 2000, Mr. Moore was not wowed by a Gore presidential candidacy, but times and circumstances have since changed, and over the intervening years Moore has had a not-so-private discussion or two with Gore about the ill-fated 2000 presidential election.  As recently as late May of 2007 on HBO's "Real Time With Bill Maher" during his first live television interview in two-and-a-half years, Moore said of Gore: "I really hope he gets into this race, not only because he's been right about global warming, he's been right about the healthcare issues, he was right about the war in Iraq . . . but I also think the country maybe would like perhaps a moment of redemption to right the wrong that happened six years ago, and I can't think of a better way."  After Mr. Gore's failed presidential campaign, he was the chief architect and focal point of Davis Guggenheim's "An Inconvenient Truth", which earlier this year won the Oscar for best documentary feature, as Moore had done four years prior.

A couple in England reaps the benefits of the country's National Health Services, in a scene from Michael Moore's documentary "SiCKO". 
(Photo: The Weinstein Company)

Michael Moore has been severely criticized in some quarters by both the political left and right in America as being personally standoff-ish, difficult and deceptive in his films.  He's been described as a man who "hates America."  Two feautre-length documentaries, "Manufacturing Dissent" and "Fahrenhype 9/11" skewer Moore and at best question whether the facts and assertions in his films are true.  The documentaries assert that he takes facts out of context and that selective editing makes imagery not what it seems.  Despite numerous lawsuits filed by people against Mr. Moore for his films "Bowling For Columbine" and "Fahrenheit 9/11", each suit has been tossed out of court, including one recently by a U.S. soldier who was shown in Mr. Moore's "Fahrenheit" armless in a medical center recovery ward.  The soldier had said that the film presented him as if he agreed with the director's position on the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the U.S. president.  Each fact displayed in Mr. Moore's documentaries is carefully researched and fact-checked more than once by a team of researchers and lawyers.  On his website he has a complete source list for each and every fact presented in "Fahrenheit 9/11", a list which is reproduced in his book The Fahrenheit 9/11 Reader.  And during "Roger & Me", Mr. Moore's documentary released in 1989, the director did not succeed in interviewing Roger Smith, then-president and CEO of General Motors, but rumors among many, including some journalists, suggest that Mr. Moore actually did get to interview Mr. Smith.  And in "Bowling" some have charged that the early scene in which the director goes to North Country Bank and Trust in Michigan to open a bank account and receive a gun in the process, was staged.

In America, it may be a fair statement to say that this side of O.J. Simpson, no other television celebrity, sports figure or movie persona evokes so much attention, heat, passion, outrage, hatred, love, praise and debate these days than Michael Moore does.  He is looked at with skepticism and distrust among a few people who call themselves left wingers and Democratic supporters, while he is ardently admired and beloved by most others on the political and radical left.  He is bitterly attacked by Republican and right-wing supporters over the water cooler, on blogs and anti-Moore websites, and by the Grand Old Party's politicians, such as U.S. presidential candidate John McCain (who fired ammunition at Mr. Moore during a speech at the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City, at which the director was an invited guest of USA Today), and prospective Republican candidate and actor-politician Fred Dalton Thompson.  The intensity of the vitriol against the director (who has been married to film producer Kathleen Glynn for 17 years and has a daughter) has been such that he has had bodyguards accompany him on occasion, such as in 2003 on a book signing tour stop in New York City, where he currently resides. 

Some of his foes urge boycotts of his films without the benefit of seeing them.  Throughout folklore and in history messengers have been shot, especially if the message that they are delivering is one that many are not ready to hear.  True enough, Michael Moore is the un-politician, avoiding safe rhetoric and saying things that some people are uncomfortable hearing.  He is fearless in his challenge of wrong against right, and has been criticized as a millionaire who masquerades as a pauper while making endless sums of money through his films, books and speaking engagements.  Reports have circulated that The Weinstein Company, headed by "Fahrenheit" distributors Bob and Harvey Weinstein (formerly heads of Miramax), paid Moore some $25 million for "SiCKO".  In many interviews Moore has said that with a film like "Fahrenheit 9/11" he was just doing what the mainstream media in America wasn't: reporting the stories and the complete picture of what was going on in America and around the world, especially where it concerned the Bush Administration.  Michael Moore's withering critique of the president was such that some anti-Bush people had pitied the Republican after watching the film in 2004.  During several conversations that this reporter had with moviegoers in New York City in 2004 following screenings of the film on its opening weekend, one or two had suggested that the film was unfair to the president.

A screen shot of Michael Moore backstage with his Oscar for "Bowling For Columbine" at the Academy Awards on March 23, 2003, just four days after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq began.  (Photo: AMPAS)

During the 2004 U.S. presidential campaign Michael Moore sold out auditoriums throughout the United States, including dozens and dozens of college campuses on his "Slacker Tour", during which he urged college students to get up, get out and vote.  He even passed out packs of underwear to those students who pledged to vote during the 2004 election.  (A documentary related to the tour is expected to be next on Mr. Moore's film agenda.)  Whether before students or working adults, Mr. Moore has spoken around the country and the world, and many audiences young and old, black and white, have turned out en masse to see and hear him on speaking tours, book signings and other public appearances including when he stops by at movie theaters in several U.S. cities for the opening weekend showings of his films.  His effect and popularity among some is such that he could easily be dubbed the pied piper of populism.  Moore has even been urged by many to run for political office in America, which he has steadfastly refused to do, instead encouraging people in the general public to do so. 

Moore's book Stupid White Men was a worldwide best seller.  His television series "The Awful Truth" and "TV Nation" won Emmy Awards.  His film "Fahrenheit 9/11" won the top prize (Palm D'Or) at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival and later that year grossed $222 million worldwide, the most money that any documentary feature film has ever grossed.  More than half of that worldwide total came from North America.  Before "Fahrenheit 9/11", Mr. Moore's 2002 documentary "Bowling For Columbine" (which received a special prize at that year's Cannes Film Festival) was the highest-grossing documentary film ever.  (Before that, the director's "Roger & Me" has the highest-grossing ever.)  "Fahrenheit 9/11" made more money in its opening weekend in the U.S. than "Bowling" did in its entire theatrical run in the country.  And former New York State governor and Democrat Mario Cuomo appealed before the MPAA ratings board, albeit unsuccessfully, to change "Fahrenheit"'s R rating to a PG-13.

Mr. Moore stirred up a hornet's nest when during his Oscar acceptance speech in 2003 for "Bowling" he blasted George W. Bush for taking the country to war "under false pretenses."  (The U.S. had invaded Iraq literally four days before Mr. Moore made those comments in his acceptance speech.  Both then-Pope John Paul II and the American country-pop/rock band The Dixie Chicks came out publicly against the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.)  Hailing his love of "non-fiction films" during his speech and citing "that we live in fictitious times", before a worldwide television audience of over a billion people, during a mix of cheers and boos at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood, site of the Academy Awards, Mr. Moore cried out, "shame on you, Mr. Bush, shame on you.  And anytime you've got the Pope and the Dixie Chicks against you, your time is up." 

Time may also be up for criticizing the director -- who has now shelved the once-planned "Fahrenheit 9/111/2".  For "SiCKO", the director hopes his fiercest critics will cut him some slack and ease off criticizing him.  A sign that such may be happening comes from Cannes, where after one screening Moore was accosted by two men, Republicans, who were deeply moved by "SiCKO".  One of them was tearing up, and both thanked Mr. Moore for making the film.  And Fox News, no friend of Moore, also praised the film as the best work of Michael Moore's film career.  The Wall Street Journal also heaped kudos on Moore for the film, which reportedly moved numerous American journalists attending the press screening in Cannes to tears.  And a right-wing blogger who had spent years attacking Michael Moore on his website devoted to that very purpose almost closed it down when the blogger's wife was in ill-health and behind in health costs for a procedure she needed.  The blogger received an anonymous donation of some $12,000. 

Guess who the donation turned out to be from? 

"SiCKO" also received a standing ovation lasting over ten minutes at the night-time screening at the famed Festival on the French Riviera.  The film, Moore says, will appeal to everyone regardless of political viewpoint, as healthcare is a universal issue, one expected to be addressed by the U.S. presidential candidates during the campaign running up toward next year's November presidential election.

In a television interview, Michael Moore was confident that "SiCKO" will be to audiences' liking and appreciation. 

"I want to guarantee you when people go to see my movie they're going to have a great time.  It's gonna be entertaining.  And it'll be over before you know it.  Painless.  And you'll leave the theater, you know, wanting to go shut down an HMO."

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