“The doctor will see you now,” says a Hollywood publicist as she opens a door for a reporter at Los Angeles city hall.
Alone inside a conference room there is Michael Moore, who has just finished speaking at a rally outside with supporters of universal health coverage for Americans.
An Academy Award winner for the 2002 gun-control documentary “Bowling for Columbine” and the filmmaker behind 2004’s President Bush-bashing “Fahrenheit 9/11,” Moore returns with “Sicko,” his dissection of the nation’s health care infirmities.
Moore, 53, presents horror stories of Americans who have gone bankrupt and lost loved ones after health insurers denied coverage. He contrasts public health care coverage in Canada, Great Britain and France with the U.S. private system. He visits Cuba for treatment of ailing Sept. 11 rescue workers, a trip that has prompted the U.S. Treasury Department to investigate Moore for potential violations of the trade embargo prohibiting travel there.
“Sicko” opened at one theater in New York City last weekend and played in sneak previews around the country Saturday night in advance of its nationwide release this Friday.
Since 1989’s General Motors critique “Roger & Me,” Moore has been breaking box-office records for documentaries, with “Bowling for Columbine” topping $20 million domestically and “Fahrenheit 9/11” shooting past $100 million.
The Weinstein Co. — co-founded by Harvey Weinstein, the former Miramax boss who championed “Fahrenheit 9/11” — is releasing “Sicko.”
Moore sat down with the AP to discuss how “Sicko” will resonate with audiences and policy-makers on the health care issues.
AP: In “Sicko,” you stop to ask what’s wrong with a nation that might put profit ahead of people’s welfare. Do you view your whole body of work as a sort of diagnosis of a sick society?
Moore: That’s probably a good way to put it. I clearly got into this in part because I love the movies, and so the idea of making a movie seemed like an exciting thing to do. But then the stories I wanted to tell seemed to be pretty much based around an America that I thought could do better. And I believe that we’re capable of much more.
AP: What effect do you hope “Sicko” has on the health care debate?
Moore: I went to some of the screenings last weekend, both in New York and the sneak previews last Saturday. People were leaving the theaters ready to ask the ushers, “Can you direct me to the torches?” I think the health insurance industry, the pharmaceutical companies are in for some pretty bad times here. I don’t think people are going to tolerate this any more. They’re going to demand legislation. They’re going to demand that we have universal health care.
AP: At the end of the movie, you encourage people to eat their fruits and veggies and go for a walk. Are you following your own advice?
Moore: I’ve been going for a walk every day and losing some weight. Eating a little different. I’m feeling a little better right now. A little more energy. While I was finishing the film, sitting in the editing room, I just started thinking, geez, I’m seeing myself on the screen. This is so hypocritical. You’re making a health care film, and you’re not taking care of your own health. So I just started doing it. I’ve lost about 30 pounds. I’ve got a ways to go, but yeah.
AP: Have you had any health care nightmares of your own?
Moore: I’ve been very lucky. I have not had any serious illness or whatever. Tonsils and appendix, that’s my health care history. I think genetics do play a lot in this. My grandfather lived to 88, my grandmother lived to 95. These things certainly help. And since belonging to the Directors Guild, I’ve had great union health coverage that most Americans don’t have, because most Americans don’t belong to a union.
AP: Your grandfather was a country doctor. Can you contrast stories you heard of health care in his day with the way things are now?
Moore: He went to medical school in the late 1800s and actually lived until 1956, practiced right into his 80s, delivering babies. He was the village doctor. ... He was born in Canada, so he came out of a Canadian mentality of we’re all in this together. He was also a Republican, because to be conservative in those days literally meant to conserve. Conserve the environment, conserve money, don’t spend money you don’t have, don’t live in debt. Conserve the rights of human beings in terms of civil rights, being the party of Lincoln, which is what Republicans were. He didn’t charge a dollar an office call. He would go to people’s homes, he’d deliver babies, and they’d pay him with chickens and eggs and milk. He wasn’t a rich man. They lived well by the standards of those times, but not extravagantly.
Thinking about that era, back in the first half of the 20th century, where you had for instance the man who invented the kidney-dialysis machine. He didn’t want the patent for it, he felt it belonged to everybody. Jonas Salk and the polio vaccine, again, he wouldn’t patent it. The famous quote for him is, “Would you patent the sun? It belongs to everyone.” He wasn’t doing this to become a millionaire. He was doing it because it was the right thing to do. During that era, that’s the way people thought.
AP: In your travels on this film, did you find many health care providers with that sense of altruism?
Moore: I find doctors these days pretty demoralized by the whole system. Because family doctors don’t make that much money any more. Insurance companies really give them a lot of grief and make them jump through a lot of hoops to collect their money. Remember when you were a kid and went to the doctor? There might be one woman sitting behind the glass making the appointments. You go today, there’s five or six people behind the glass, filling out forms, fighting with the insurance company. We’ve really gone down the wrong road here by allowing profit to enter the equation. That’s what’s wrong.
AP: Harvey Weinstein says his initial reaction over the investigation of your Cuba trip was elation that the federal government was helping to publicize the film. Did you ever feel that?
Moore: No. This is serious. I’m being investigated by the federal government, for what? I’m a free citizen in a free country. I can travel freely. To tell me I can’t go somewhere is antithetical to what freedom and democracy are about. ... I read a lot when that happened, like, “Oh, boy, Michael Moore and Harvey, they must just love this.” But I don’t really need to do anything to get people to come to my movies. They come. ... Everybody knows who I am at this point, I think. They know what my movies are about. They’re either going to come or not come. It may seem stupid of the Bush administration to have done anything to help publicize the film, but the film was going to be known, anyway. We weren’t going to make any big deal about it. We were just going to open the film, and we thought people that saw “Fahrenheit” would probably come and see this, or at least some of them would. My goal is, I hope we do as well as “Bowling for Columbine,” and if we do better than that, to me that would be considered a great success.
AP: You assailed President Bush over the Iraq war in your Oscar speech for “Bowling for Columbine.” If you got a chance to make another Oscar speech, would you play nice?
Moore: I will always be true to myself, and I will always follow my conscience, but I also am a person who is very appreciative of those who are thanking me for the work that I do. And I think there’s something to be said for being a good guest when you’re in someone’s house. My films have a mix of comedy and tragedy. I’ve given my tragic Oscar speech. If I was lucky enough to have that happen again, I think I will roll with the comedy this time.