Moore in The E.R.
By Jeffrey Kluger
Thursday, May. 17, 2007
Here’s something that won’t surprise you: Michael Moore has some gripes about how things are going in this country — and he wants to share them with you. The filmmaker behind such blistering hits as Fahrenheit 9/11, Bowling for Columbine and Roger & Me, Moore, 53, is back with Sicko, his soon-to-be released take on the U.S. health-care industry.
The movie, screened for TIME, is double-barreled Moore, a mix of familiar numbers (47 million uninsured Americans, the ever rising cost of care) and chilling moments (the 18-month-old baby who dies of a seizure when she’s denied emergency-room access, the husband and father with kidney cancer whose insurer won’t pay for a bone-marrow transplant). Together, they will have many moviegoers angry enough to gouge holes in their armrests.
But it’s not always clear how fair Moore plays. His romanticized take on Canada’s single-payer health-care system is a few data points shy of a controlled study, and his decision to shoot part of the movie in Cuba made him the subject of a federal investigation, which may be precisely the p.r. gold he was after. Still, the film will surely get people talking, which is just what Moore wants — and just what he did in a wide-ranging conversation with TIME.
TIME: A portion of your audience is pre-sold on your politics, but another portion is undecided. Is your finger-in-the-eye style the best way to change minds, or does it give people a reason to tune you out?
Michael Moore: I’ve already moved the needle on some things. In March 2003, I stood up at the Oscars and said we’re being led to war for fictitious reasons, and I was booed. Only 20% of the country agreed with me. I should have learned my lesson and gone away quietly. Instead, I made Fahrenheit 9/11. I did that because I believe that the majority of Americans are not only persuadable but that they have a generous heart and ultimately want to do the right thing. Now I am in agreement with 70% of the country about Mr. Bush. So it took a while.
TIME: With Sicko, do you think you picked an easy target? After all, you can’t find a whole lot of people who are happy with their HMO.
Michael Moore: This film does cut across party lines. Everybody gets sick; everybody has had a problem with insurance or the prescription drugs they’re supposed to be taking or an elderly parent who needs care. On the surface, it does seem that the only people who are going to be upset are the executives of insurance and pharmaceutical companies.
TIME: So if there’s no argument that the system is broken, why use your energies to start one?
Michael Moore: Because what’s even more broken is the fact that our Congress and White House are bought and paid for by these two industries, which rival the oil industry in terms of money and influence. They have a vested interest in maintaining their control. But they’re not dumb. They know which way the wind is blowing and that this is the No. 1 domestic issue with Americans. Their job now is to try to control it so that universal health care is run through them, so that they can still skim the money, make the obscene profits and keep their investors happy.
TIME: Of the declared presidential candidates, down to the Dennis Kucinich level, say, who do you think has the best health-care plan? Including Kucinich? We could include him.
Michael Moore: Then Kucinich, but he doesn’t go far enough. He supports what he’s calling a single- payer nonprofit plan, but from my read, it would still allow [private] entities to control things, as opposed to the government. What’s wrong with the government? The right wing and the G.O.P. have done a wonderful job brainwashing people that government doesn’t work, and then, as Al Franken says, they get elected and proceed to prove the point. [Laughs.]
TIME: So you think Washington could handle a program this big?
Michael Moore: Ask anyone on Social Security if their check comes on time every month. Like clockwork. And it comes through the so-called dilapidated U.S. mail. My dad’s check literally will come on the same day every month. The government has been quite good and efficient at creating a number of systems. If I tell people the administrative costs for a private health plan—advertising, p.r., executive pay—are 20% and ask them what Medicare’s administrative costs are, they’ll guess 50%, 60%. The fact is, for Medicare/ Medicaid, it’s 3%. The last figure I read for Canada’s [government] system is 1.7%.
TIME: Your movie paints an almost utopian picture of the Canadian system. You do show some American critics arguing that there can be long waits for treatments north of the border, and you refute them simply by interviewing a handful of happy, satisfied Canadians. Pretty unscientific, no?
Michael Moore: Canadians as a whole are pretty happy with their system. Yes, it’s a flawed system, and the main flaw is that it’s underfunded. The [in-depth] answers exist in articles and essays, and I’ll have them up on my website.
TIME: You also speak rhapsodically about the French and Cuban systems and travel to Cuba, where you interview Che Guevara’s daughter. France, Cuba, Che. Are you going out of your way to annoy the right?
Michael Moore: I give people more credit than the media and the political machine running this country do. The story line is: France, bad; France, cowards. What crime did France commit? We wouldn’t have had this country without their support in the Revolution. They gave us that statue that sits out in New York Harbor. They responded immediately after 9/11. And they remain eternally grateful for what we did during World War II.
As for Cuba, yes, when I’ve got a film crew there, they’re going to show us their best. But there’s a reason the World Health Organization ranks their health-care system [among] the best in the Third World and that people from Latin America come there for their health care. There’s also a reason Cubans live on average a month longer than we do. I’m not trumpeting Castro or his regime. I just want to say to fellow Americans, “C’mon, we’re the United States! If they can do this, we can do it.”
TIME: What was the hardest thing about making this movie?
Michael Moore: Getting insurance. How do you convince an insurance company to insure a film about insurance? I finally found this guy who’s got a little company out in Kansas City. I think he’s the only Democrat who owns an insurance company.
TIME: Do you think people will accuse the movie of inaccuracy?
Michael Moore: I offered $10,000 to anybody who could find a single fact in Fahrenheit 9/11 that was wrong.
TIME: Have you had to pay anything?
Michael Moore: No, of course not. Every fact in my films is true. And yet how often do I have to read over and over again about supposed falsehoods? The opinions in the film are mine. They may not be true, but I think they are.
TIME: How do you entertain people at the same time you’re trying to get them to think about hard things?
Michael Moore: When I’m shooting a movie, I’m always in an invisible theater seat. I respect the fact that people have worked hard all week and want to go to the movies on the weekend and be entertained. But the struggle for me does not come between politics and entertainment, because I know that if I succeed in making an entertaining and funny or sad film, that the things I want to say politically will come through very strong. If there ever is a struggle, making a good movie will always supersede the need to be noble.
TIME: Yet you don’t shy from showing some pretty stark scenes in your movies. Anything you’ve ever decided to cut because it was just too unsettling?
Michael Moore: In Bowling for Columbine, we used the videotape in the cafeteria, but I’m not going to show students being killed. In Fahrenheit 9/11, I felt that the media had shown the images of the planes flying into the towers more than enough, so the screen goes black for over a minute during the attack. So I’m always thinking about this sort of thing.
TIME: After taking aim at so many big targets, who do you plan to go after next?
Michael Moore: I don’t know. I’m going to wait and see how people respond to this. After that, I think it’s time for a romantic comedy.