At this point, Michael Moore is used to charges that he has misrepresented a person or situation in his documentaries. He’s also used to being pressured to remove material before the release of his movie.
But he is not used to hearing these things from Harvey Weinstein, the producer who has stood steadfastly by him since the release of Moore’s first film, 1989’s “Roger & Me.”
(Weinstein Company; US theatrical: 22 Jun 2007 (Limited release); 2007)
“I had quite a row with Harvey over the Hillary Clinton sequence,” says Moore of a scene in his latest film, “Sicko,” which compares health care in the United States to that of other countries and finds it severely lacking.
Part of the film recounts Clinton’s struggle to devise a universal health care system in the first term of her husband’s presidency. It recalls how a coalition of mostly Republican congressmen, nearly all of whom have received hefty contributions from health care giants and insurance companies, ensured the plan was D.O.A. by deeming it “socialist.”
But Moore, who titled a chapter in his first book “My Forbidden Love for Hillary Clinton,” doesn’t stop there. He goes on to detail how Clinton, after running for the Senate in New York, made up and got friendly with health care providers, to the point that she became the second largest recipient of campaign dollars from the industry in the Senate after arch-conservative Republican Rick Santorum.
“Now that Santorum’s out, I assume she’s the largest,” says Moore. “I believe her heart was in the right place when she came up with the original plan, even if it was a bit of a mess. But she’s changed her position on national health care now. Harvey, of course, is one of her biggest supporters in the presidential race. He thought it would be damaging to include it. I thought it was important to show how the system really works. Harvey didn’t like it, but we left it in.”
“Sicko” opens Friday after receiving a pushed-up opening date in New York on Saturday, allegedly to take advantage of the early reviews it received after its New York premiere. But Moore says the date change also was prompted by Weinstein’s concern that the pharmaceutical industry, which with HMOs serves as one of the film’s major villains (politicians’ spinelessness and demagoguery are another) was planning an extensive anti-“Sicko” advertising campaign.
“We’ve heard about people from the industry trying to get into early screenings so they can gauge what they want to respond to,” says Moore. “But there’s not much in the way of data or statistics to be argued with. `Sicko’ isn’t as much about the numbers as it is about people. People who are victimized by the health care business, and the American people, generally. What kind of country have we become that we actually argue over who has a right to medicine or treatment that could save their lives?”
Moore’s original conception of “Sicko” was different from the movie it became. It was, he says, initially inspired by an episode of his short-lived TV show in which “we literally saved a life of someone who couldn’t get treatment. We thought, wow, we could make a movie that really makes a difference by saving some more people’s lives.” But after he posted an invitation for people who had been denied coverage or had other problems with their health care providers to write to his Web site and received thousands of horror stories in response, the emphasis began to change.
“We started thinking about a different kind of film from one where we would bust into a corporate boardroom or try to make a company accountable. After `Fahrenheit 9/11,’ I started asking myself, `How do I communicate better with the people who have different political beliefs than I do? What can we do to bring people together instead of widening that divide?’
“I didn’t make this film as an indictment, even though there is no shortage of corporate and political greed in this mess. So we didn’t focus on the people who don’t have health insurance. We focused on those who do, and still can’t get care.”
But as Moore admits, his success as a documentary filmmaker—“Fahrenheit 9/11” is the most successful nonfiction film ever made, grossing more than $119 million in 2004—is the way he has managed to make muckraking into satire, to find the amusing irony in subjects like corporate downsizing, the Iraq war and other hot-button issues.
“You know, there’s really not that much that’s funny about people losing their jobs in my hometown of Flint (the basis for Moore’s breakthrough “Roger & Me”), or getting shot in a schoolyard (“Bowling for Columbine”), either. But to make a movie about sick people, it sounds like the depth of misery. How do you make that something someone wants to see?”
In Moore’s mind, it was about making people identify with the people whose travails he documents, from a middle-aged couple forced to live in the basement of their daughter’s home in order to pay for health care coverage, or a guy who cuts off two fingers with an electric saw, and is forced to choose which of the two he wants reattached, because he can only afford to pay for one. (Who knew the ring finger was more expensive than the middle one?)
But just when it began to look like Moore was in fact making the populist, let’s all-look-after-one-another hand-holder he had envisioned, the side of him that inspired a Web site famously titled “Michael Moore Hates America” reared his baseball-behatted head.
In the final third of the film, Moore leaves North America to compare our health care system to those in other parts of world. As one might expect, there’s a lot of conversation about England, where there has been a national health care system in place since the end of World War II, and where he seeks to dispel the myth that a doctor can’t earn loads of money under a national system.
Then he ferries to France, where he hosts a dinner in which American residents of Paris go on and on about how much better care, medical and otherwise, that the French take care of their populace than America does.
Moore then sets out to illustrate how the U.S. government has given better, and free, medical assistance to the so-called evildoers held at Guantanamo Bay than it has to the private citizens who volunteered for the 9/11 clean up in New York City, some who suffer from respiratory and other ailments. He gets in a boat headed for Guantanamo to demand the American heroes get equal treatment.
When they are turned away, they head for Cuba, where his ill passengers not only get free diagnoses and treatment, they are given a welcome that makes Castro’s island once again look like a Caribbean paradise.
“I could have played it safe, I know,” says Moore. “I could have confined the comparisons to Canada, our lovely neighbors. Or I could have gone to Ireland. Everyone loves the Irish. I knew what the risks were with the French and Cuban stuff. But you know you have to get people’s attention. I don’t think acknowledging that these countries that a lot of people have been conditioned to hate treat their people better than we do health-wise is being anti-American.
“I think the fact we fail not only the weakest among us but also people who have worked their butts off for this country, who love America, is un-American.”
Moore, of course, is ready for the barrage of criticism that will accompany “Sicko.”
“One thing I’m not is thin-skinned,” says Moore. “And I can laugh at myself as much as anybody else. I know what the image of me is. Geez, I created it, in part just by being the guy I am. But I’m not that devil that some people imagine, except for when I promote these movies, or do something like our film festival (which will be held again in Traverse City, Mich., from July 31-Aug. 5), I stay out of the public eye.
“I don’t debate my critics for sport or reply to the bloggers. When I started doing the talk show rounds a couple of weeks ago for `Sicko,’ it was the first time I’ve been on TV for 2 ½ years. I’m a quiet guy, churchgoing and, in a lot of ways, pretty conservative guy. And when I went on `The View’ last Tuesday, the first thing I did was hug the Republican (Elisabeth Hasselbeck). I think she may have even hugged back.”