CANNES — The bigger Michael Moore’s celebrity gets, the more people attack him. It’s a double-edged sword: It brings him a level of attention that few documakers achieve, but it also encourages personal attacks, which threaten to undermine the credibility of his work.
Call the documentary filmmaker a liberal advocate, a lightning rod, a gadfly or even a Cassandra. Just don’t call him a propagandist.
That word belongs to the establishment forces that are already lining up to attack Moore’s latest salvo, the documentary “Sicko,” which targets the U.S. health care system, particularly insurers, and which debuts here Saturday.
Moore does not see himself as a politician, either. “I’m a citizen in a democracy,” he says. “(But) I am a participant, not a spectator.”
He’ll own to being an advocacy journalist and agitator. “It’s the op-ed page,” he says. “You don’t say that’s not journalism. I present my opinion, my take on things, based on indisputable facts. They could be wrong. I think they’re right.”
Before “Sicko” debuts in Cannes, it has already drawn serious fire from the likes of Fox News, Michelle Malkin, presidential hopeful Fred Thompson and the U.S. Treasury. They’re all furious that Moore took 10 ailing veterans down to Cuba to demonstrate that Fidel Castro’s dictatorship takes better care of its citizens than the U.S. does its own.
Moore’s response: He fired back from his bully pulpit at Michaelmoore.com, which can pull in millions of unique visitors a day. An email blast gets to 5 million-10 million more people, says Moore.
On his site, the filmmaker challenged Thompson to a debate. (Thompson promptly turned him down.) “I’m just having some fun with him,” says Moore, pointing out that Thompson buys Castro’s cigars. “That’s just for my own entertainment.”
With a string of hit movies — his biggest smash, “Fahrenheit 9/11,” scored $222 million worldwide — that redefined the rules of documentary filmmaking, plus a huge bestseller, “Stupid White Men,” Moore boasts a fanatical fanbase.
But his celebrity makes him a helluva bullseye.
The question is, will Moore’s liberal branding turn off the wide swath of Americans he hopes to reach? Research previews on “Sicko” prove otherwise, Moore says. “Once people see the film, they don’t even think about Cuba. That wasn’t the point of the film.”
But the constant barrage of negativity does irritate the filmmaker. “I’m wondering when do I get to catch a break here,” Moore says. “What is it now, 18 years since I started off telling people the emperor has no clothes?”
Each time the director has set out to investigate a problem, he has discovered that the impediment to its solution was more far-reaching than he thought.
With 1989’s “Roger and Me,” he started out examining the troubles in Flint, Mich., and wound up looking at how the U.S. economic system is rigged. At the time, Detroit’s mighty General Motors was the No. 1 company in the world, and Moore was little David poking at a corporate Goliath. Eighteen years later, the car company is near bankruptcy; Moore wishes people had paid attention to him at the time.
He turned his attention to America’s gun culture in 2002’s “Bowling for Columbine.” The movie scored points with the liberal faithful but was lambasted by the NRA. Moore was chastised for sandbagging Charlton Heston. (No one knew Heston had early-stage Alzheimer’s at the time.) Now, after the Virginia Tech shootings — another horrific massacre by a student known to be mentally ill who was still able to easily obtain guns — Moore again wishes the country had listened to him.
At the Oscars in 2003, just months after the start of the Iraq War, Moore was booed and heckled after accepting his Oscar for “Bowling for Columbine.” Moore’s condemnation of George W. Bush in his acceptance speech rendered the director persona non grata in America, which was solidly behind the president at the time.
Today, just 28% of Americans support Bush’s Iraq War policies, and Moore is getting letters from Republicans who are finally seeing “Fahrenheit 9/11” on DVD and thanking him for telling it like it is.
As for “Sicko,” the filmmaker has a decidedly reduced on-camera presence. “I’m mostly tired of looking at myself,” he explains. “I also think it’s better to let a story tell itself. This story is so powerful, it doesn’t need much assistance from me.”
“Sicko” also lacks an easy target like Bush.
While making the film, Moore began to despair that Americans would ever receive universal health coverage because, he says, “There’s a larger problem.”
Moore’s thesis in “Sicko” is that American society is structured differently than any other in the Western world.
“Others see themselves as a collective that sinks or swims together,” he says. “It’s important to have a safety net and free universal health care. In America, unfortunately, we’re more focused on what’s in it for me. It’s every man for himself. If you’re sick and have lost a job, it’s not my problem. Don’t bother me.”
The insurance companies are a key aspect of the problem, says Moore. “They get in the way of taking care of those who are ill. They make it worse. We don’t need them.”
We do need drug companies, says Moore, but they should be strictly regulated, like a public utility. “The poorest Brit is healthier and lives longer than the wealthiest American. When people leave the theater, I don’t think the discussion will end in the theater lobby.”
The filmmaker’s controversial profile has generated a phalanx of anti-Moore docs, and many critics take issue with Moore’s filmmaking techniques.
Rick Caine and Debbie Melnyk’s “Manufacturing Dissent” has generated the most serious coverage. Structured like a Moore documentary, the movie follows Melnyk as she chases after the peripatetic, limo-riding Moore on the stump before the 2006 election. She films his rabble-rousing speeches and catches him on the run but never lands a proper interview. She and her camera crew even get thrown out of a Moore press conference.
The film accuses Moore of misleading auds during such sequences as the gun-giving bank in “Bowling for Columbine.” In fact, says Melnyk in the film, Moore set up the whole sequence in advance, insisting that there be no waiting period for his free rifle.
Yes, Moore answers, he called the bank to let them know he was coming with a camera to open an account, and they did ask him to select the kind of gun he wanted. But the guns were available onsite, he says. In 2002, Moore posted the raw footage of that sequence on the Internet.
Between now and the film’s release by the Weinstein Co. and Lionsgate on June 29, you will see a lot of Moore. He’s gearing up to do Leno, Letterman, “The Daily Show” and his all-time favorite, Bill O’Reilly.
And he’s hired former Al Gore press secretary Chris Lehane and PR man Ken Sunshine to help with the “Sicko” counterattack.
“The forces I’m up against are a lot more sophisticated and well funded,” he says. “Lehane was a big help during ‘Fahrenheit,’ which wasn’t just a daily assault but hourly.”
Moore insists he has not seen any of the docs critical of his methods, as he has been buried in the editing room since last July, whittling over 400 hours of footage down to just less than two hours. But he may find a way to harness their venom.
“I’m thinking of sponsoring a little film festival of anti-Michael Moore movies,” he says. “It’s a cottage industry. I’ll invite critics as judges, and we’ll give out prizes.”