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Michael Moore: Our national rabble-rouser

It’s hard to pin down an exact date, but a few years ago Michael Moore went from being a filmmaker to a full-time polarizing political force. By Stuart Levine
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

It’s hard to pin down an exact date, but a few years ago Michael Moore went from being a filmmaker to a full-time polarizing political force.

Most likely it came during the release of his 2002 film “Bowling for Columbine,” in which he explores America’s obsession with guns. For the most part, our feelings about gun ownership are drawn on party lines: Republicans, and especially those who are members of the National Rifle Assn., called Moore satanic for his diatribe against firearms, while Democrats, many of whom backed the Brady Bill and would love to see gun control legislation passed in this country, sainted Moore a hero.

Now, however, most everyone is backing Moore. Even some of his former adversaries are changing their tunes. He’s gone from whacko to “Sicko.”

That’s “Sicko,” as in the title of his latest film in which he aims his cinematic crosshairs at America’s health-care system. One that, no matter your political affiliation, nobody is particularly happy about.

In the past, Moore has used his opponents’ venom against him to sell tickets. Controversy has always been Moore’s constant companion, all the way back from “Roger & Me” to “Fahrenheit 9/11,” the film that raised his condemnation of the Bush presidency and Iraq War into a full-blown boil.

Taking on America’s bullies“Roger & Me,” which came out in 1989, was unique in that Moore must’ve felt like David poking a stick at Goliath. Like in most of his movies, the topic was heartfelt and deeply personal, this one taking place in his hometown of Flint, Mich.

Here, Moore examined the American car industry, and how General Motors — once a thriving corporation — had closed plants in the state and left factory workers out of jobs and into poverty.

Everyone likes to pick on the bully, and audiences cheered him on. The film went on earn critical kudos and made $5.5 million at the box office on a budget of $160,000. A nice profit for a documentary by a first-time director.

He made a few more small movies that never really took hold and even dabbled in TV for awhile with “The Awful Truth,” and his popularity seemed to wane. “Columbine,” however, put him back in the spotlight.

But the controversy of “Columbine” was nothing compared to “Fahrenheit,” where the right-wingers called him everything from a traitor, to Hitler, to worse. Among the red-staters, he was Public Enemy No. 1. How dare he criticize the president during a time of war!

A uniter, not a divider“Sicko,” however, might just be the movie that unites rather than divides. It’s easy to get behind the president when he’s being taunted by a liberal, but are those same people who backed Bush going to saddle up with Aetna, Kaiser and Cigna?

The film smartly doesn’t just present the plight of those 47 million Americans without health insurance who face a daily financial tightrope everyday. Rather, Moore examines those who do have insurance, and even though they have every reason to believe that their bank accounts won’t be emptied during medical catastrophe, that’s just not the case.

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Insurance companies are all profit-seeking corporations with shareholders, meaning they’re not making money if they’re paying out claims. So every dollar that goes toward a doctor or hospital visit isn’t well spent according to the bean counters.

And Moore takes them all rightly to task. He interviews and shows footage of insurance company employees whose job it was — most have since left their positions, as the guilt was eating away at their conscience — to, somehow, deny coverage. Deem a medical procedure “unnecessary” or “experimental.” Find a minor flaw in an application. Figure out some way to determine a pre-existing condition.

Despicable work. And, yet, this is how our country takes care of its citizens. One hospital in Los Angeles drops off homeless and indigent patients in front of Skid Row. Just pushes them out of a cab and on to the street.

A major portion of the film compares American health care to that of other countries, most noticeably Canada, England and France, and how those respective governments don’t charge their citizens for health care. Doctor and hospital visits are free of charge — and there’s no deluge of patients, no waiting 12 hours as some who are against this type of socialized medicine would have us believe.

In France, not only is health care funded by the government, but the feds — for a nominal fee — provide new mothers a nanny to help with the baby. And then there’s the mandatory five weeks of vacation, not including unlimited sick days, for workers.

Controversy rears its head
In the last 20 minutes of the film, however, Moore is sure to push political buttons and his detractors, who may have been unhappily agreeing with him up to this point in the movie, will finally get their chance to pounce.

Moore takes a group of Sept. 11 rescue workers, all of whom attended to the search and rescue mission at Ground Zero, to Cuba for free medical assistance. Each of these people have either been denied coverage in the States, or have gone through so many hoops and ladders to try and get a diagnosis, they’ve become fed up and depressed.

Moore paints Cuba’s medical system as bliss, and since Fidel Castro and the U.S. aren’t exactly the best of buddies, this scenario of us unable to care for our sick and wounded and forcing them to go to Cuba for assistance will undoubtedly upset more than a few moviegoers.

Yet, there’s the catch, and the secret to Moore’s longevity as a rabble-rouser. Even those who disagree with him go to see his movies. “Fahrenheit,” for all the controversy it caused and seemed ludicrous by some, earned a staggering $119 million. For a documentary. On a budget of $6 million.

Controversy equals cash. No wonder why the Weinstein Co. is so happy to see Moore’s names in the headlines — for good or bad reasons.

Like Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” Moore arrived in the nation’s capital just before the film opened, and congressman of both parties (OK, mostly Democrats) seemed genuinely shaken by the movie’s subject matter, and some agreed to support legislation for a universal health care package.

As first lady, Hillary Clinton spearheaded this in 1992 and got nothing but grief, so I wouldn’t hold your breath waiting for it to happen. Yet, there might be more support for it now, especially after “Sicko” enters the mainstream and creates a dialogue.

Expect the public’s appetite for change to be fierce, especially from those who’ve been manipulated by our current medical system. And as always the case, expect Moore to be championed by some, denigrated by others.

But, no matter what ultimately changes or doesn’t, expect the insurance companies to be feeling ill after “Sicko” has its say.

Stuart Levine is an assistant managing editor at Variety. You can reach him at stuart.levine@variety.com.