Oh, the audacity
IN Hollywood these days, burly guys like “Knocked Up’s” Seth Rogen have all the heat. But no one casts a weightier shadow in the cultural zeitgeist than Michael Moore. A lightning rod for controversy, a canny self-promoter and a gifted filmmaker, Moore has been hard to avoid in recent days as he’s crisscrossed the country beating the drums for “Sicko,” popping up everywhere from “The Daily Show” to downtown L.A.'s skid row, where he hosted a “premiere” of the film.
A devastating dissection of the pitfalls of the U.S. healthcare system, the film opened Friday in limited release to largely admiring reviews and a warm reception at the box office. Half comedy, half muckraking horror film, “Sicko” offers testimony from regular folks who’ve had ruinous encounters with cold-hearted healthcare providers as well as a Moore-led pied-piper tour of countries whose healthcare systems appear shockingly better than ours.
At the center of the film, as always, is Moore. Like Bono, Spike Lee and George Clooney, he occupies that amorphous space in the pop culture given over to bold-faced names whose activism is indistinguishable from their celebrity. A walking inspiration for op-ed page pieces arguing the merits of his latest expose, Moore has, as Clifford Odets once said of Orson Welles, “a peculiarly American audacity.”
What makes Moore so compelling is that he has a cultural magnetism that seduces us while simultaneously arousing our suspicion. It’s an unusually combustible equation: Infuriate + Inspire = Ambivalence. Bill Clinton’s entire presidency was consumed by it. Courtney Love had it for a minute, as did Oliver Stone. Terrell Owens and Barry Bonds have brought it to the playing fields. Love ‘em, hate ‘em, often all at the same time.
You need a big megaphone to make such a complicated impression. “Michael Moore is out there in the crowded streets of our culture, shouting ‘Do you not see what’s happening in our world?’ ” says Paul Greengrass, the acclaimed filmmaker of “United 93" and “The Bourne Supremacy” who, like Moore, started his career in journalism. “Complexity isn’t his subject, is it? It’s his fierce moral clarity. His subject is our world and its injustices.”
Moore also reminds Greengrass of another larger-than-life filmmaker. “There is something Wellesian about him,” he says. “He has this preposterous, overblown persona that you can’t help but get involved with. He has the showmanship as well as the delight Welles had in getting a rise out of people. He’s also a technically brilliant filmmaker, even if you sometimes wonder -- am I really getting the whole picture?”
Unlike previous generations of documentarians, who largely remained unseen behind the camera, Moore is always front and center, playing the blue-collar rube. With his signature baseball cap and shambling gait, he looks like Vince Vaughn’s tubby older brother, the guy who lingers over an extra slice of pie at your local coffee shop. Moore casts himself as a wide-eyed naif, full of sympathy for the poor loser who can only afford to have one of the fingers he cuts off with a power saw reattached.
The aw-shucks persona is a pose of course, but a shrewd one, because it encourages us to let down our guard and identify with Moore’s point of view. It also helps us forget how much Moore’s films are shaped by sophisticated techniques of narrative fiction. “Sicko” is full of so many gripping stories that it’s easy to forget it’s also propelled by crafty editing, movie score, pop songs, even a “Star Wars” takeoff, all to help influence our reaction to events on screen.
Thoroughly disarmed, we rarely notice how much we are being manipulated. In “Sicko,” for example, Moore takes a boatload of ailing 9/11 volunteers to the U.S.-operated detention camp in Guantanamo Bay to dramatize his contention, bolstered by various news clips, that the prisoners there are receiving splendid free healthcare, unlike our heroic volunteers. Denied entrance, Moore appears to spontaneously head for Havana, where the 9/11 workers enjoy the fruits of the country’s supposedly superb healthcare system. What Moore doesn’t show us is that their appearance in Havana was an entirely separate trip.
It’s a small matter, but it gets at the heart of the debate over Moore’s work. Do his embellishments and visual shortcuts damage his larger arguments? Do the details he conveniently leaves out -- Cuba has great medical care but no political freedom while France has marvelous healthcare but astronomically high taxes -- undercut his more salient point, that our healthcare system is a national disgrace?
Many journalists, including myself, have taken issue in the past with how much Moore plays fast and loose with the facts. But Moore’s filmmaking peers defend his work, arguing that what he does shouldn’t be confused with pure journal-
“If you think you’re seeing objective truth when you go to a Michael Moore film, you’re missing the whole point,” says Brett Morgen, director of the forthcoming documentary, “Chicago 10.” “He’s not a journalist, striving for objectivity. He’s a provocateur trying to engage the viewer. Context belongs to journalism. The responsibility of a filmmaker is not to write an essay, but to create something exciting or entertaining that stays with you.”
Greengrass has a great phrase to describe the moments in Moore’s films that rattle those of us raised on “just the facts” documentaries. He calls Moore’s work “highly interventionist,” in the sense that Moore is willing to use the power of film, be it clever cutting or funny archival footage or cheap melodrama to carry the day. “His work is often intensely tabloid,” Greengrass says. “But I remember from my days as an on-camera interviewer that the question that makes you sweat by the very idea of asking it is the one you should always ask. And Moore’s brilliance is that he always asks that question, over and over.”
At a time when programs like “The Daily Show” have thoroughly ridiculed the ineffectual “objectivity” of news gathering organizations, it seems almost quaint to be pillorying Moore for fudging the line between fact and entertainment. That line is long gone. Film is a medium of oversimplification, from Eisenstein to Spielberg.
Of course it’s a stretch to portray European healthcare systems as virtual utopias. But the flaws in Moore’s films aren’t just the result of his political agenda. They are rooted in a paradox at the heart of his work -- he’s a propagandist with the keen ear of a satirist. Except for rare missteps, as in “Bowling for Columbine,” when he clumsily leaves a photo of a girl killed by gun violence on the front steps of NRA guru Charlton Heston’s home, Moore can’t help but see the farce in most situations. There are dryly comic scenes in “Sicko” that would seem right at home in a Judd Apatow film, notably the tale of the woman who is rushed by ambulance to a hospital, but whose insurance company won’t reimburse her because she didn’t get the ambulance trip pre-approved.
This unerring knack for the tellingly funny anecdote that illustrates his larger point is just one of the reasons why Moore has been a true game changer in the documentary film world.
“When I started trying to get financing for my first documentary, asking for $300,000 was a big deal,” Morgen says. “Now we’re making movies with $10- million budgets. And the big difference is Michael Moore. He’s completely changed the landscape by proving to the studios and financiers that documentaries, especially ones about social issues, can have a healthy theatrical life.”
Given bigger budgets, documentary filmmakers can now afford to hire composers to score their movies or computer animation firms to provide special effects. On “Chicago 10,” Morgen had the money to do 45 minutes of motion capture animation, something that would’ve been unthinkable in a documentary half a dozen years ago.
Even though I’m sure Moore would love to take a bow at the signing ceremony if Congress someday funds a universal healthcare system, his biggest impact may be in the world of film, where he has opened the door for a new generation of socially involved filmmakers. Moore has a lot in common with Abbie Hoffman, one of the leading lights of Morgen’s “Chicago 10.” Like Hoffman, Moore is a sly media-savvy showboat. But he’s figured out that when you’re competing for attention against the likes of Paris Hilton, subtlety isn’t the weapon of choice.
“The Big Picture” runs each Tuesday in Calendar. E-mail ideas or criticism to email@example.com.