By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
CANNES, France, May 21 -- Michael Moore, hero or antichrist, punching bag/gas bag, Bush hater or truth teller. We're not going to settle this one today. And that's the point. The revolutionary filmmaker, who shattered all box-office records for a documentary with his last effort, "Fahrenheit 9/11," has returned to the Cannes Film Festival with another log to throw on the bonfire, his new film, "Sicko." Perhaps the most improbable 116 minutes ever conceived, it is a film about . . . health insurance!
"It's crazy. Like, what were we thinking? Like, 'Honey, it's Friday night; why don't we go down to the mall and watch a movie about Blue Cross coverage?' Or a guy asking some girl on a date, 'Hey. Hey. I got us two tickets to a health-care documentary, wanna go?' It's about hospital waiting rooms -- in Canada."
This is Moore sitting down for an interview at the American Pavilion at Cannes, dressed in a black T-shirt, khaki shorts, sneakers without socks and a Rutgers University ball cap. Although he says he has lost 25 pounds and "has discovered these things you call fruits and vegetables," he's still a continent.
Since the eruption of "Fahrenheit 9/11," Moore has been mostly out of the public eye for two years. "Everyone calls me this big promoter who knows how to hype, this P.T. Barnum character. But where have you seen me lately? I have stayed out of the noise machine. I've been working on my movie. I'm actually a very quiet person living a very quiet life." (Until he shows up again on Bill O'Reilly's show, which he plans to do.)
Okay. The quiet life may be about to change soon: "Sicko" is funny in parts (the guy who lost two fingers on a table saw has a sense of humor when told that reattaching his middle finger would cost $60,000). But the film, which opens in June, has already cranked up the anti-Moore blogosphere and conservative pundits (they need each other for this tango). The movie asks, very pointedly: Why does one of the richest nations on Earth have a health-care system that leaves 50 million Americans without coverage? And for those who have insurance, what's the deal with these inscrutable loopholes and denials to reimburse, these pre-existing conditions, whereby for-profit insurers refuse to cover seemingly necessary treatments . . . like chemo? You want your chemo, right? Or, like, why are hospitals in Los Angeles dumping patients -- still in hospital gowns; he has video -- on skid row? Or how come a couple dozen pills cost a couple hundred bucks? All in the film. All of the bad, none of the good.
It doesn't work this way in France! (More on this below.)
From Moore's perspective, the American health-care system is sick because the political system is unwell. He traces (and blames) the birth of the HMO on poor Richard Nixon (he shows a White House tape to bolster his case) and argues that a super-lobbyist cabal consisting of the American Medical Association, big pharma and the insurance industry has bought our national leaders, who then try to scare us into believing that universal health care (and Moore is clear on this point: He wants government-run, taxpayer-paid health care) is socialism run amok.
Interestingly, in "Sicko," Moore initially praises Hillary Clinton for her attempt to reform the system early during the Clinton administration. A montage of what he calls "the best pictures of Hillary Clinton you'll ever see" is accompanied by the love-groovy R&B of the Staple Singers and Moore pronouncing the current senator from New York "sexy" and "smart" and "strong" and that "they couldn't handle her." Moore then brands her a sellout, and one of the top earners in donations from the medical industrial complex. (He doesn't support any of the Democrats -- yet.)
Equally interesting, Moore says that Harvey Weinstein, the film's producer and a big supporter of the Clintons, asked him if the scene were necessary. "Harvey did ask me if that had to be in the movie," Moore says. "He asked me a few times. And I said, 'Yes, Harvey, it's still in the movie.' "
More troubling than Harvey's question, Moore says, is a letter he received from the Treasury Department informing him that he is being investigated for the trip he took to Cuba during the course of filming. He took some sick and struggling volunteers who had worked at the World Trade Center site after the 9/11 attacks to Castro's island, where they received free medical care. (The United States maintains a decades-long trade and travel embargo of Cuba.) During a press conference, Moore ominously suggested that the U.S. government might want to confiscate his film and that he sent a master duplicate of it out of the country.
This has got to be good for box office, no? Moore bristles at the suggestion -- at first. "I'm an American citizen and I can't believe I'm here at Cannes talking about the possibility that I could be fined or the film tied up in a legal limbo or I could be sent to jail," he says. "I have better things to do this summer. Seriously, I don't want to fight some case in the Supreme Court."
But ahh. Can't hurt? "If they were smart, the Bush administration -- and we know they're not (look at Iraq, at Katrina) -- they would have waited until the film had been out six or nine months, and then quietly gone after me," he says.
The second half of Moore's "Sicko" is about how other countries provide their citizens with just fantastic national health care -- "just like we have our government provide police and fire and libraries and schools," he says, and off Michael Moore goes with his patented shtick to Canada, England and France. He paints a very rosy picture, especially of the generosity of France, where care is not only free (citizens do pay taxes for it, however), but the government sends nannies to new mothers to help them care for their infants -- and do the laundry.
"I mean, how ridiculous can this country be?" he says. "Laundry?" It's amour.
Once the film comes to the United States, all these points and counterpoints can be parsed and debated. (Like, how long do you really wait in Canada for a hip replacement?) Right now, Moore is as happy as a man with a low cholesterol count. "It appears I've pulled it off," he confides. "It appears I've pulled it off in a very large way." The audience here -- and, ohh, the French, in particular -- they're loving it at Cannes. "I've made a very funny film," he says, "about a very sick subject."