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THE BIG PICTURE PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Oh, the audacity

Michael Moore puts a modern spin on old-fashioned showmanship.

July 03, 2007|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

IN Hollywood these days, burly guys like "Knocked Up's" Seth Rogen have all the heat. But no one casts a weightier shadow in the cultural zeitgeist than Michael Moore. A lightning rod for controversy, a canny self-promoter and a gifted filmmaker, Moore has been hard to avoid in recent days as he's crisscrossed the country beating the drums for "Sicko," popping up everywhere from "The Daily Show" to downtown L.A.'s skid row, where he hosted a "premiere" of the film.

A devastating dissection of the pitfalls of the U.S. healthcare system, the film opened Friday in limited release to largely admiring reviews and a warm reception at the box office. Half comedy, half muckraking horror film, "Sicko" offers testimony from regular folks who've had ruinous encounters with cold-hearted healthcare providers as well as a Moore-led pied-piper tour of countries whose healthcare systems appear shockingly better than ours.

At the center of the film, as always, is Moore. Like Bono, Spike Lee and George Clooney, he occupies that amorphous space in the pop culture given over to bold-faced names whose activism is indistinguishable from their celebrity. A walking inspiration for op-ed page pieces arguing the merits of his latest expose, Moore has, as Clifford Odets once said of Orson Welles, "a peculiarly American audacity."

What makes Moore so compelling is that he has a cultural magnetism that seduces us while simultaneously arousing our suspicion. It's an unusually combustible equation: Infuriate + Inspire = Ambivalence. Bill Clinton's entire presidency was consumed by it. Courtney Love had it for a minute, as did Oliver Stone. Terrell Owens and Barry Bonds have brought it to the playing fields. Love 'em, hate 'em, often all at the same time.

You need a big megaphone to make such a complicated impression. "Michael Moore is out there in the crowded streets of our culture, shouting 'Do you not see what's happening in our world?' " says Paul Greengrass, the acclaimed filmmaker of "United 93" and "The Bourne Supremacy" who, like Moore, started his career in journalism. "Complexity isn't his subject, is it? It's his fierce moral clarity. His subject is our world and its injustices."

Moore also reminds Greengrass of another larger-than-life filmmaker. "There is something Wellesian about him," he says. "He has this preposterous, overblown persona that you can't help but get involved with. He has the showmanship as well as the delight Welles had in getting a rise out of people. He's also a technically brilliant filmmaker, even if you sometimes wonder -- am I really getting the whole picture?"

Unlike previous generations of documentarians, who largely remained unseen behind the camera, Moore is always front and center, playing the blue-collar rube. With his signature baseball cap and shambling gait, he looks like Vince Vaughn's tubby older brother, the guy who lingers over an extra slice of pie at your local coffee shop. Moore casts himself as a wide-eyed naif, full of sympathy for the poor loser who can only afford to have one of the fingers he cuts off with a power saw reattached.

The aw-shucks persona is a pose of course, but a shrewd one, because it encourages us to let down our guard and identify with Moore's point of view. It also helps us forget how much Moore's films are shaped by sophisticated techniques of narrative fiction. "Sicko" is full of so many gripping stories that it's easy to forget it's also propelled by crafty editing, movie score, pop songs, even a "Star Wars" takeoff, all to help influence our reaction to events on screen.

Thoroughly disarmed, we rarely notice how much we are being manipulated. In "Sicko," for example, Moore takes a boatload of ailing 9/11 volunteers to the U.S.-operated detention camp in Guantanamo Bay to dramatize his contention, bolstered by various news clips, that the prisoners there are receiving splendid free healthcare, unlike our heroic volunteers. Denied entrance, Moore appears to spontaneously head for Havana, where the 9/11 workers enjoy the fruits of the country's supposedly superb healthcare system. What Moore doesn't show us is that their appearance in Havana was an entirely separate trip.

It's a small matter, but it gets at the heart of the debate over Moore's work. Do his embellishments and visual shortcuts damage his larger arguments? Do the details he conveniently leaves out -- Cuba has great medical care but no political freedom while France has marvelous healthcare but astronomically high taxes -- undercut his more salient point, that our healthcare system is a national disgrace?

Many journalists, including myself, have taken issue in the past with how much Moore plays fast and loose with the facts. But Moore's filmmaking peers defend his work, arguing that what he does shouldn't be confused with pure journal-

ism.

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