Reeling - Rene Rodriguez

Moore isn't picking a fight, but he isn't pulling punches

Michael Moore still believes. It is true that his last film, Fahrenheit 9/11, did not achieve its primary mission -- to keep President George W. Bush from being re-elected -- when it was released in 2004, even though it became the highest-grossing documentary of all time, earning $222 million around the world.

But the way Moore spins it, Fahrenheit 9/11 succeeded anyway.

''It did make a difference, because now 70 percent of the country is against the war and doesn't support Bush,'' Moore says. 'The miscalculation was that people would turn around in four months and change their votes, and that was never to be. When it comes to politics, you could say we live in a nation of slow learners. But if someone had told you in November of '04, `Two years from now, 33 Republicans are going to lose their seats and Democrats will take control of not just the House but also the Senate,' you would have thought they were crazy.''

Regardless of whether Fahrenheit 9/11 had anything to do with recent political swayings, the point is that Moore believes his film played a part in it. And no matter what one might make of his newest movie, Sicko, which opens Friday, it's hard to argue the film is a work of passionate optimism -- a heartfelt, infuriating and often very funny piece of skillful agitprop from one of contemporary cinema's most prevalent provocateurs.

With a less confrontational approach than Moore has used in the past -- no on-camera ambushes, no scenes in which overpaid CEOs squirm uncomfortably as they try to dodge impossible questions and (almost) no political demagoguery -- Sicko makes an eloquent argument against the state of health care in America, recounts the history of HMOs in the United States and uses other countries -- including Canada, Great Britain, France and, most problematically, Cuba -- to argue that there is a viable alternative within our reach.

A NEW DIRECTION

Moore admits that the kinder, gentler tone of Sicko was intentional -- a way to get past the knee-jerk reaction the mere mention of his name provokes in many people. Despite his commercial success and respect within the industry, Moore is perfectly aware of what a polarizing figure he cuts even within the liberal-friendly domain of Hollywood (he was practically booed off the stage during the 2003 Academy Awards telecast when he launched into an anti-Bush tirade while accepting his Best Documentary Oscar for Bowling for Columbine).

Those strong love-hate opinions -- combined with the size of the audiences that see his films -- are a testament Moore is doing something right. But although Moore has proven to be exceptionally savvy at manipulating the media-hype machinery at just the right moments, he says he didn't want Sicko to become fodder for another cultural us-vs.-them debate.

``I gave a lot of thought after Fahrenheit 9/11 about making a movie that would not only inspire the liberal base, but also reach out across the great divide to those on the other side of the political fence and say -- at least to some of them -- `Can't we find some common ground?'

'I could have made a movie about education or day care -- any number of things. But I chose health care because everyone gets sick and needs to see the doctor. And I want to ask my fellow Americans `Why do we want to punish those who have it the hardest?' Perhaps in some way Sicko is my most subversive and dangerous film, because it suggests that I and my fellow Americans who are more conservative than I am can actually come together on something.''

Most of the people in Sicko who suffer at the hands of HMOs -- losing jobs, homes, limbs, loved ones and even their own lives -- have one thing in common: They belong to the middle-to-lower-class tax bracket that Moore has always favored in his films. The filmmaker's emphasis on the poor and disenfranchised has led some critics to brand him a socialist, or even an outright communist (a point he addresses squarely in Sicko when he visits the grave of Karl Marx). When you bring up this topic, Moore sighs, audibly weary of having to defend his stance.

''I'm neither. I'm a Christian,'' he counters. ``Look, you're never going to convince people who think that narrowly. My movies are not for simple minds. They're for people who want to think and question and operate from a place of conscience, people who know the difference between right and wrong. If you don't fall into those categories, you probably shouldn't be at my movies.''

TRUE TO HIS ROOTS

Moore's roots as a native of the working-class Flint, Mich., and his allegiance to his hometown are an integral component of his public persona. But despite the great financial success his films have earned him, Moore says it is that connection to his past that continues to motivate him as an artist -- and films like Sicko are the proof.

''The nuns I had in school taught me certain lessons -- that I'd be judged by how I treat the least among us, that a rich man would have a harder time getting into heaven than a camel passing through the eye of a needle -- that I have never forgotten,'' Moore says with conviction in his voice. ``I've seen too many people forget where they came from, and I'd never do that. I would never break faith with the people who first came to see Roger and Me [his first film]: I was making $98 a week back then, and I've never forgotten how those people helped change my life. The more successful I become, the more I feel it's incumbent on me to make movies that give a voice to people who don't have a voice.''

But Moore knows the secret to his success is not the message of his movies, but the movies themselves. No matter how much you might disagree with Moore -- no matter how much you think he twists facts or cheats the truth or showboats -- there's no denying his films are, at their core, supremely entertaining.

And Sicko is no exception. ''That's always the most important thing to me,'' he says. ``I'm a filmmaker setting out to make an entertaining film so you can go out and have an entertaining night at the movies. Everything else comes second.''

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