Monday, June 25, 2007

This Might Hurt a Little

By Mike Gillis

I'm one of the thousands of people who recently scored a sneak-peek of Michael Moore's upcoming documentary, "Sicko." I didn't receive an advance screening copy because The Weinstein Company wants to hear what a small New Hampshire daily newspaper has to say, but instead queued up with others to watch on YouTube. Before the film was removed from the popular video sharing site last week, several thousand people logged on to watch the film, which opens nationwide June 29.

I'm convinced the illicit release was no accident. Moore has said he has no issue with his films popping up online for download, as long as it's not for profit. He said last week he's not interested in pursuing those responsible for "leaking" the copy of "Sicko," in contrast to what the film's distributor said. Documentaries seldom enjoy a large audience -- Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" notwithstanding -- and a little prerelease publicity certainly will not harm "Sicko." The federal government's threat to charge Moore for traveling to Cuba while shooting the film doesn't hurt, either.

And if Moore wants to spark serious and widespread debate, as he has said, The Weinstein Company's exclusive movie rental deal with Blockbuster doesn't help. All the more reason to spread the word.

But I hope it's the film itself, and its sharp indictment of the American health care system, that merits mass attention.

Moore has never been lauded as objective. He inserts himself in his work and guides the narrative with heavy hands. But what documentary isn't subjective? A filmmaker's voice may be absent on the soundtrack, but still evident in the editing, the pacing, the selection of sound bites and images.

And Moore is up front. His interviews are as much about his questions as they are the answers. But it's wrong to fault him as sloppy and subjective. He is, after all, a storyteller, and what storyteller does not want to be heard?

I believe "Sicko" is Moore's best work to date. It's certainly the most meticulously crafted. But it's not an important film because of how deftly it's edited. It is a confrontation, and too few documentaries -- at least those with the kind of reach Moore's enjoy -- are willing to tackle complicated and contentious issues without fear of retribution, legal or otherwise. Of course, many important documentaries are never seen by more than a handful of people.

I can't say Moore's flattering portrayal of socialized medicine in Canada, France, Britain and Cuba is wholly accurate, but I will say it helps dispel some of the incessant criticism leveled by politicians and insurance companies here about the ills of health care outside of the United States. I'm sure there are critics all over the globe, but Moore underlines why socialized medicine elsewhere works well. It's compelling, not because health care seems so much better elsewhere, but because it so clearly states what's wrong with our system.

Nor is it partisan. Moore challenges Republicans and Democrats alike, including Hillary Clinton, which reportedly angered the Weinsteins. It certainly will not earn a seal of approval from the insurance and HMO industries. I read that Moore today plans on projecting the film's trailer on buildings adjacent to the headquarters of HMOs, insurance companies and hospitals in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and Oakland. Good for him.

So what's wrong with stirring up some debate?