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Mr. Moore Goes to Washington

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON // The constituents are swarming through the Rayburn House Office Building. At the House Judiciary Committee offices, an elderly couple hopes Chairman John Conyers Jr. can address a friend's immigration problem, but an aide explains that the committee can only change laws, not intervene for individuals.

While this drama unfolds quietly in the reception area, a political-action comedy takes screwball form in the rear quarters. Movieland publicity and political pep-rallying fuse with the appearance of a citizen who casts a bigger shadow.

"I'm an activist-citizen -- but, wait -- isn't that redundant? Every citizen should be an activist."

Of course, it's Michael Moore speaking.

Michael Moore doesn't come to Capitol Hill like James Stewart, armed only with his ideals and boyish resilience. He's going to Washington after an 18-year film and video career of rousing discussion over corporate profit-taking, gun control, imperial adventurism and now, the medical industry, with Sicko, opening Friday.

He has wreaked havoc on the misfit-idealist paradigm: The outsider no one can control has become a political and cultural force everyone has to reckon with. The filmmaker keeps expanding his appeal as polls show increasing numbers of Americans agreeing with his theme that they live in a great country that has lost its way.

"It's 'We the people,' not 'Me the people,'" Moore says. "'We' is the first word of our public language."

On this mild Wednesday in Washington, medical industry workers and members of Congress take up his call for a new, single-payer health plan for all Americans, for all their lives. Before the day is out, he will be on a podium in a House conference room, standing pleased and poised as Conyers praises him for never changing -- in his values and "belief system," if not, Conyers jokes, his fluctuating weight.

This filmmaker has given Americans the idea that documentaries can be fun while bashing the U.S. elite and turning himself into a cracker-barrel philosopher; now he has come to spread the word about his latest filmed expose. Sicko is a cry of pain and a blast of gallows humor over the state of the American health care system. At least one commentator -- Moore's friend and ally, political comedian Bill Maher -- considers this an epochal achievement: the first Moore movie that could immediately shape public policy.

And here is Moore in his sneaks, rumpled sports jacket and blue-and-black plaid shirt, nudging that probability along. He is getting debriefed by his show-biz / political posse before appearing at a news conference and briefing with Conyers of Michigan, Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and other supporters of HR 676: The U.S. National Health Insurance Act.

Having just come from a meeting with health care industry workers at the AFL-CIO building, Moore settles into a big back room with his entourage -- including big-time publicist Kenneth Sunshine, who has also represented Barbra Streisand, Justin Timberlake, Ben Affleck and several unions. Fifteen minutes later, Moore emerges to ask whether he can eat his lunch before the interview.

Moore registers instantly as the same ingratiating regular guy who initially came to the public eye with Roger & Me (1989). That first-person chronicle of life in the devastated GM factory town of Flint, Mich., won comparisons to Mark Twain and established Moore as a populist multimedia entertainer. Its success led to a couple of TV shows (TV Nation and The Awful Truth), three best-selling books (the most recent was Dude, Where's My Country, in 2003) and five more films, including the first documentary blockbuster, Fahrenheit 9 / 11 (2004).

After his pasta with meat sauce, he makes time to talk. But he has barely settled down to chat when the door opens, and Conyers pokes his head in to ask how Moore is. Moore responds warmly to the powerful Democrat: "I'm great; how are you?"

"I hope you like my digs," Conyers says, with a gesture that takes in the generous sitting area and the book-lined walls.

"Much better than the last couple of years," Moore answers with a cackle, alluding to the shift in power that resulted in a new Democratic majority in the House.

"Considerably," Conyers replies dryly.

Then Moore flashes a look that indicates, "Don't worry. I really do like talking about movies."

Broadening audiences

Moore can hobnob with powerful Washington types. But he insists that his first goal is simply to make a great film, full of passion and humor and energy -- everything else comes afterward.

And he has taken a central place in the movie firmament. Nearly ever documentary filmmaker interviewed for background for this story gives Moore credit for opening up the field and broadening the audience for their own work.

But some have a few caveats. Since Moore began making many lawmakers look venal, silly or both, especially in Fahrenheit 9 / 11 (2004), other filmmakers have struggled to get access, says Alex Gibney. He earned an Oscar nomination for Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) but says it's more difficult for him to get to a senator or congressman:

"I knock on the door. It opens -- and, boom, it slams back shut."

"I'd demand proof of that," Moore advises jovially, noting "I have 50 congressmen with me here right now and a bunch of senators. And tonight at the screening, I don't know how many are lined up -- I don't think we have enough room." (Of course, Gibney notes, politicians like to support a project when it's finished, screened at festivals and hailed by the critics, as Sicko was at Cannes.)

Any time a fellow documentary-maker distances himself from Moore, it puzzles him. He points to Eugene Jarecki, who made the 2005 documentary Why We Fight about military life but promoted it by saying the film was not polarizing, not a "Michael Moore" movie.

"Why would he say that? Was he telling people not to see his movie?" Moore asks. "Was he thinking, 'That Michael Moore, he had a $250 million box-office around the world -- I don't want that to happen to me'? It sounds weird. It'd be like me going 'I hope I never have to have the success of George Clooney'. It would be like, 'Dude, are you weird?"

When Moore gets on a roll, he punctuates his conversation with machine-gun chuckles and occasionally adopts the wheedling voice of a persecuted teenager in a 1950s sitcom or the sad warbling of a cartoon sad sack. The effect is convivial and disarming.

"'Polarizing.' It's a word we only use in this country -- other countries think it's a healthy debate over the issues. Only here do we say 'Oh-h-h-h, this is bad' " -- and that last phrase Moore utters in a funny kind of sorrowful yodel.

Moore thinks the language used to deride his movies may be part of what promotes them. "By being 'polarizing,' " he says, "what my films do is to tell what used to be a 50-50 country, now a 70-30 country, 'These are something you might like; this guy's going to go to bat for you.' "

Rousing sermons

Filmmaker Gibney compares the provocative power of Moore's films with those of Robert Greenwald (Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism), whose anti-Bush and anti-Fox News documentaries have largely been Internet-distributed: "They 'preach to the choir,' but they get the choir excited. You go to church every Sunday to sing your favorite hymns, and it motivates you."

Hearing that Wednesday, Moore likes the re-appropriation of the "preach to the choir" phrase.

"Right," he adds excitedly, "and the choir needs a song! And the choir on our side of the political fence needs to get in tune! That's not a bad thing!"

But Gibney also remembers that when he was doing a portrait of a Republican rock 'n' roll band in Mississippi, "They were all really interested in Fahrenheit 9 / 11 -- his movies do stir it up and get people out, and that's good."

That, too, delights Moore. He says the idea that he speaks only to his political base "couldn't be further from the truth. That's why the abuse has been heaped on me from the Right.

"I think, 'Why don't they go after Noam Chomsky in the same way that they go after me?' And with all due respect to him, they don't perceive him as a threat. But when Fahrenheit 9 / 11 opens Number 1 at the box office its first week in Mississippi, that's a scary thing to the other side -- and that's why they spend so much time on me."

Moore has ridden high even when his friends in the progressive caucus -- those he's joining this day -- have not: Bowling for Columbine became Moore's commercial breakthrough (and the true harbinger of the documentary revolution) in 2002, when Bush Republicans were ascendant and mavericks and Democrats in decline.

As the political parties have struggled with and exploited the rise of the Internet, so have grass-roots entertainers. A suggestion arises: Has the Web made it easier for Moore to hold his public and helped mold and strengthen his material? Sicko has much less showboating by the moviemaker than first-hand testimony from close-call survivors of our health-care system -- people whose insurance companies have denied treatment, who have been forced to make terrible choices or who have been turned out on the street. Near the start of Sicko, Moore tells the audience that he put out an SOS over the Internet for medical horror stories and received more than 25,000 responses in days.

At first, Moore shrugs off the suggestion that the Web has altered or firmed up his filmmaking. But then he confesses that the movie began with the idea that he would follow 10 people who would die if they didn't get the proper care. The e-mailed responses made him realize he could create even more resonant comedy and drama from taking a longer view of the system that permits this to happen.

Moore the character

From the beginning, a broader public than expected loved Moore's fact-based collages, which mix straightforward interviews with existential stuntwork and burlesques of retro American attitudes derived from old educational or industrial films.

Sicko contains Moore's most brilliant and controversial sally yet: He loads three small boats with Americans, including several Sept. 11 rescue workers in need of medical care, and sails them to Guantanamo Bay. Through a bullhorn, he demands that Gitmo authorities give these ailing citizens the same treatment as Gitmo's internees, "no more, no less."

This gutsy tour-de-force roused the interest of the U.S. Treasury Department, which is now investigating Moore for possible violation of the U.S. trade embargo with Cuba.

Stunts, politics and parody, and his comic-opera version of the 60 Minutes "Gotcha!" interview, have always roused heated arguments.

So has his personal style. What sets his movies even further apart from conventional documentaries is his creation of an on-camera "Michael Moore" who becomes a latter-day Will Rogers, a humorous, populist commentator on current events.

"That is the biggest leap I took," as a documentary filmmaker, Moore says, "and the biggest departure from reality in any of these films."

Moore says he knows people roll their eyes with disbelief when they hear it, but he is "deeply shy: Growing up, at any party, I'd be the kid in the darkest corner of the room. I think I got two dates in all of high school."

He maintains an internal distance between what he sees as the "real" him and the gregarious guy who comes out in public -- and he says it was deliberate that "Michael Moore" isn't omnipresent in Sicko, as he was in his previous films.

"I think, by now, people have gotten to know that character pretty well, so that a little of me goes a long way, and, please don't groan, 'Less is Moore.' But also, especially in the first half hour, the personal testimony I had to present was so powerful, I didn't want to get in its way."

It can be a cunning piece of craftsmanship, this "Michael Moore." After all, a moviemaker who takes his work around the world and has won a Golden Palm at Cannes presents himself in Sicko as an American innocent abroad. "But that's where I inject the satire," he explains, suggesting that part of what skeptics see as self-aggrandizement is more like self-parody. "And," he says, "part of what you're getting is just real."

In the apex of Sicko's high-farce scenes, Moore is exploring the beauties of French government-provided nanny-care when he mutters to one contented mother, "Next thing you'll be telling me is that they'll come to your house to do your laundry" -- and she responds, "Yes, they will!"

"I made that up as a joke," he declares. "And it was true!" Moore is one of those people who has a talent for serendipity. The door opens, and this time he's double-teamed -- it's Conyers and Kucinich, pulling him out to the conference.

"One man who's running for president and one man who should have been president," he quips, with a laugh -- and the confidence of knowing that of all the men in the room, the one with the largest constituency may be Michael Moore.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

Michael Moore

Born:

April 23, 1954, in Flint, Mich.

Early achievement:

As an Eagle Scout, for his Eagle Project he created a filmed expose of safety hazards in and around his hometown, Davison, Mich.

Public office:

Won a seat on the Davison school board in 1972 -- the year he graduated from Davison High School -- running on a platform that included firing the high school's principal and vice principal. Both resigned while he was in office.

Print:

Founded the alternative weekly The Flint Voice (later The Michigan Voice) at age 22.

Films:

Roger & Me (1989); Canadian Bacon (1995), his only purely fictional satire; The Big One (1997); Bowling for Columbine (2002), won the Oscar for best documentary, Anniversary Prize at Cannes Film Festival and the Cesar (French Oscar) for best foreign film; Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), won Palme d'Or (top prize) at Cannes; Sicko (2007).

Family:

Married to Kathleen Glynn. One stepdaughter, Natalie.

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