THE BACK PAGES

They love me, they love me not

Michael Moore defends Sicko's idyllic view of Canadian health care against local 'ingrates'

BRIAN D. JOHNSON June 25 2007
THE BACK PAGES

They love me, they love me not

Michael Moore defends Sicko's idyllic view of Canadian health care against local 'ingrates'

BRIAN D. JOHNSON June 25 2007

They love me, they love me not

film

Michael Moore defends Sicko's idyllic view of Canadian health care against local 'ingrates'

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

Michael Moore’s fans were out in force, several hundred of them milling around a Silver City multiplex in a London, Ont., mall. One held a sign with the slogan “Michael Moore for Prime Minister.” Larissa Gerow, a 29-year-old quadriplegic—her neck broken by a truck that ran a red light and slammed into her bicycle four years ago—watched from a wheelchair strung with a cardboard sign: “London health care saved my life (all I had to do was pay for my parking).”

The occasion was last week’s North American premiere of Sicko, Moore’s eviscerating documentary on American health care. To point up its horrors, the movie paints idyllic portraits of socialized medicine in France, Britain, Cuba and Canada. Moore shot his Canadian hospital scenes in London, where he has family roots—his grandfather was a country doctor. Hence the incongruity of a red-carpet premiere at a suburban Ontario mall. Gerow showed up in her wheelchair uninvited and without a ticket. But she soon had one, and was ushered into a place of pride on the red carpet. Moore could not have recruited a better poster girl.

A few weeks earlier, Moore had launched Sicko’s world premiere on a far more grandiose red carpet in Cannes. That day, at a jammed press conference, his only real challenge came from some Canadian critics, who questioned the film’s image of Canada as a medical utopia where happy patients are whisked through the system with little delay. I asked Moore why he would risk his credibility by painting such a rosy picture of our beleaguered health care system. “You’d be hard-pressed to find Canadians who would

agree that 20 to 40 minutes is a standard waiting time in a Canadian hospital,” I said, suggesting it was more like several hours. Moore challenged me, so I cited the case of my 89-year-old mother, who spent four hours languishing in an emergency waiting room with what turned out to be a life-threatening condition. Our exchange was picked up by the media and ricocheted around the world. Ever since, Moore has been talking about whiny Canadian “ingrates” who don’t appreciate what they’ve got.

The irony here is that Canadians form

Moore’s most avid fan base. We represent just one 10th of the U.S. population, but generated 17 per cent of the North American box office for Fahrenheit 9/11 and 25 per cent for the Oscar-winning Bowling for Columbine. But lately Moore has experienced some backbacon backlash. Last January, a pair of Toronto filmmakers, who claim they started out as fans, gave him a taste of his own medicine with Manufacturing Dissent, a rather lame Moore-style documentary that suggested he is a fraud, a limousine liberal and megalomaniac. And then Sicko came under friendly fire—from the same fussy film critics who charged Moore with fudging the issue of Canadian gun ownership in Columbine by not distinguishing between urban handguns and farm rifles.

The London premiere was a triumph of damage control. To the cheers of the crowd, public health care advocate Shirley Douglas, daughter of medicare pioneer Tommy Doug-

las, stepped out of a limousine—which Alliance Atlantis, Sicko’s Canadian distributor, hired to bring her from Toronto. Inside, the theatre was packed with the filmmaker’s family and friends, along with doctors and patients who took part in the film’s London scenes. It was a Michael Moore love-in.

Before the screening, in a lounge beside a life-sized plastic model of the Simpson family on a couch, the Western world’s most famous leftist—himself a kind of cartoon couch potato—sat down for an interview. As “I entered the room, Moore shot me a look of mock horror. “Uh oh! Dead man walking!” he crowed. Clearly he hadn’t forgotten Cannes. Dressed in shorts and a ball cap, he toyed with a celery stick from a takeout salad, part of a weight-loss regime. “Nature made these to taste bad,” he said, “because if you ate these you’d live longer, and Nature doesn’t want you to stick around that long.” Then, with a devilish grin, he pulled out a Coffee Crisp. “So Nature makes this taste good.”

And there you have the moral dilemma of Moore’s work in a nutshell. He has to weigh the nutrition of hard fact, but he wants his movies to have the mass appeal of a naughty junk-food confection. His filmmaking straddles two extremes of journalism-documentary and satire, which both happen to be Canadian national sports. One demands accuracy, the other hyperbole. And Moore fuses them with a sense of mythic American purpose, creating morality plays that careen between pathos and farce. Even when his facts are indisputable, he frames them with fictional devices. And those little white lies of omission and innuendo, the body blows of satire, are the key to his success. They are the reason he has, singlehandedly, brought the documentary out of

THOSE LITTLE WHITE LIES OF OMISSION AND INNUENDO, THE BODY BLOWS OF SATIRE, ARE THE KEY TO HIS MAINSTREAM SUCCESS

the art house and into the multiplex.

Because Moore spends so much time defending his polemics, despite an Oscar and a Palme d’Or, he seems to feel undervalued as an artist. He can’t profess to be too sophisticated; it’s bad for the image. But when I ask if he uses fictional devices, he doesn’t deny it. “I believe I’ve created a new genre of film,” he says, “and that my contribution to this great art form won’t be recognized in my lifetime. Before Roger & Me, there was nothing like that. Critics, film, historians, cinéastes have had to grapple with this now for 18 years.” He slips into a manic German accent. “Vat haz he done? Vat haz he concoted? It’s funny. It’s satire. But there’s facts in it, and he seems to be somewhat serious.”

Ask Moore about balanced journalism, and he laughs. “We haven’t seen balance in journalism in a long time. Journalism is owned and controlled by large corporations. But satire used to be considered a form of journlism. Mark Twain was a journalist. Will Rogers was a journalist. My movies are opinion based on fact. That’s what I do.”

The odd thing is, despite my caveats, I like Moore’s new film. In Cannes, I laughed, I cried—as did some of the director’s toughest critics. Sicko ranks as the most powerful, mature and accomplished work of Moore’s career. It’s free of his most irritating tropes. There’s no bully-boy ambushing of stock villains (such as Columbine’s Charlton Heston), no unctuous displays of proletarian pity. Moore stays off-screen for much of the film, letting victims of health care horror—and whistle-blowing insiders—tell their stories, which are devastating. Some interview subjects are dead before the film is finished.

Sicko doesn’t dwell on the 45 million Americans without health insurance. Instead it targets the private insurance companies, showing how they systematically strive to deny benefits to insured patients. He meets an American who has an accident and has to choose between spending US$12,000 to sew

his ring finger back on, or US$60,000 for his middle finger (he chooses the ring finger). Then in Canada, Moore finds a man who has all of his fingers sewn back on for free. It’s all very sad and sobering, so Moore uses medicare tourism for comic relief—casting himself as the naive Yank stumbling into foreign paradises of universal health care. In Paris, he scrunches himself into a subcompact car with a doctor who does house calls. And in England, he finds a cashier in a hospital who gives patients money—for parking.

Moore also pulls off some ingenious stunts in the movie. When Jim Kenefick, who runs the Moore-bashing website moorewatch.com, declares he’s shutting it down to pay his wife’s medical bills, Moore rescues the site with a $12,000 gift, which remains anonymous until Cannes. But his coup de grâce is to sail a boat full of ailing 9/11 rescue workers toward the U.S. base at Guantánamo Bay, demanding they get the same free treatment as al-Qaeda prisoners held there. After his plea falls on deaf ears, Cap’n Mike heads to Castro country and gets them help from a hunky doctor right out of Cuban central casting.

Moore is not a vérité, fly-on-the-wall documentary maker. He stages scenarios. Manufacturing Dissent alleges that it took months for him to set up the Columbine scene in which a bank gives him a free rifle for opening an account. The charge infuriates Moore. “Every scene in every one of my movies requires some setting up,” he says. “You have to call in advance, unless I just want to barge in. But if I state a fact that the bank gives away free guns and there’s a gun in that bank and I

walked out with it, it’s absolutely true. I have it in my closet to this day.” Has he seen Manufacting Dissent? “Of course not. I have not seen any of the nine or 10 anti-Michael Moore films. I haven’t seen Michael Moore Hates America. I haven’t seen Michael & Me. I haven’t seen Shooting Michael Moore.”

The interview keeps circling back to our confrontation over Sicko in Cannes. Again I ask Moore why he painted such a utopian view of Canadian health care. “People who see this movie aren’t going to think I have a utopian view,” he replies. “They’re going to think I have an American view. I wasn’t in Canada to talk about the specifics of your program. I was here to talk about your core values and your beliefs. You’ve debased your own system. You’ve started to de-fund it, to snip away at the social safety net. But you’re damn lucky you’ve got a system that says it’s a human right that if you’re sick you can go to a doctor and never have to worry about paying for it. That is f-king brilliant. Hats off to whoever this Tommy Douglas guy is, because the man obviously was a genius.”

There’s a sadness to Michael Moore. With the values of a Canadian socialist and the manners of an American buffoon, he’s a combatant without a country. As we end our interview, his celery stick remains uneaten. I ask about his grandfather, the country doctor who made house calls and got paid in chickens, eggs and milk. “I’m one-quarter Canadian,” he says. “Can you tell which part?” After a bit of repartee about doughnuts and anatomy, he adds, “Let’s just go on the record as saying the gut is definitely American.” M