- John Pilger marks the European release of Michael Moore's
latest film, Sicko, with an examination of why the documentary film-maker
exerts such influence, with fans and enemies alike. "In societies
ruled by an invisible government of media," he writes, "no one
has broken through like Moore, who breaks every rule by reporting from
the ground up, instead of from the top down."
- In Sicko, Michael Moore's new film, a young Ronald Reagan
is shown appealing to working-class Americans to reject "socialised
medicine" as commie subversion. In the 1940s and 1950s, Reagan was
employed by the American Medical Association and big business as the amiable
mouthpiece of a neo-fascism bent on persuading ordinary Americans that
their true interests, such as universal health care, were "anti-American".
- Watching this, I found myself recalling the effusive
farewells to Reagan when he died three years ago. "Many people believe,"
said Gavin Esler on the BBC's Newsnight, "that he restored faith in
American military action [and] was loved even by his political opponents."
In the Daily Mail, Esler wrote that Reagan "embodied the best of the
American spirit the optimistic belief that problems can be solved,
that tomorrow will be better than today, and that our children will be
wealthier and happier than we are".
- Such drivel about a man who, as president, was responsible
for the 1980s bloodbath in central America, and the rise of the very terrorism
that produced al-Qaeda, became the received spin. Reagan's walk-on part
in Sicko is a rare glimpse of the truth of his betrayal of the blue-collar
nation he claimed to represent. The treacheries of another president, Richard
Nixon, and a would-be president, Hillary Clinton, are similarly exposed
- Just when there seemed little else to say about the great
Watergate crook, Moore extracts from the 1971 White House tapes a conversation
between Nixon and John Erlichman, his aide who ended up in prison. A wealthy
Republican Party backer, Edgar Kaiser, head of one of America's biggest
health insurance companies, is at the White House with a plan for "a
national health-care industry". Erlichman pitches it to Nixon, who
is bored until the word "profit" is mentioned.
- "All the incentives," says Erlichman, "run
the right way: the less [medical] care they give them, the more money they
make." To which Nixon replies without hesitation: "Fine!"
The next cut shows the president announcing to the nation a task force
that will deliver a system of "the finest health care". In truth,
it is one of the worst and most corrupt in the world, asSicko shows, denying
common humanity to some 50 million Americans and, for many of them, the
right to life.
- The most haunting sequence is captured by a security
camera in a Los Angeles street. A woman, still in her hospital gown, staggers
through the traffic, where she has been dumped by the company (the one
founded by Nixon's backer) that runs the hospital to which she was admitted.
She is ill and terrified and has no health insurance. She still wears her
admission bracelet, though the name of the hospital has been thoughtfully
- Later on, we meet that glamorous liberal couple, Bill
and Hillary Clinton. It is 1993 and the new president is announcing the
appointment of the first lady as the one who will fulfil his promise to
give America a universal health-care. And here is "charming and witty"
Hillary herself, as a senator calls her, pitching her "vision"
to Congress. Moore's portrayal of the loquacious, flirting, sinister Hillary
is reminiscent of Tim Robbins's superb political satire Bob Roberts. You
know her cynicism is already in her throat. "Hillary," says Moore
in voice-over, "was rewarded for her silence [in 2007] as the second-largest
recipient in the Senate of health-care industry contributions".
- Moore has said that Harvey Weinstein, whose company produced
Sicko and who is a friend of the Clintons, wanted this cut, but he refused.
The assault on the Democratic Party candidate likely to be the next president
is a departure for Moore, who, in his personal campaign against George
Bush in 2004, endorsed General Wesley Clark, the bomber of Serbia, for
president and defended Bill Clinton himself, claiming that "no one
ever died from a blow job". (Maybe not, but half a million Iraqi infants
died from Clinton's medieval siege of their country, along with thousands
of Haitians, Serbians, Sudanese and other victims of his unsung invasions.)
- With this new independence apparent, Moore's deftness
and dark humour in Sicko, which is a brilliant work of journalism and satire
and film-making, explains perhaps even better than the films that
made his name, Roger and Me, Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11
his popularity and influence and enemies. Sicko is so good that you
forgive its flaws, notably Moore's romanticising of Britain's National
Health Service, ignoring a two-tier system that neglects the elderly and
the mentally ill.
- The film opens with a wry carpenter describing how he
had to make a choice after two fingers were shorn off by an electric saw.
The choice was $60,000 to restore a forefinger or $12,000 to restore a
middle finger. He could not afford both, and had no insurance. "Being
a hopeless romantic," says Moore, "he chose the ring finger"
on which he wore his wedding ring. Moore's wit leads us to scenes that
are searing, yet unsentimental, such as the eloquent anger of a woman whose
small daughter was denied hospital care and died of a seizure. Within days
of Sicko opening in the United States, more than 25,000 people overwhelmed
Moore's website with similar stories.
- The California Nurses Association and the National Nurses
Organising Committee despatched volunteers to go on the road with the film.
"From my sense," says Jan Rodolfo, an oncology nurse, "it
demonstrates the potential for a true national movement because it's obviously
inspiring so many people in so many places."
- Moore's "threat" is his unerring view from
the ground. He abrogates the contempt in which elite America and the media
hold ordinary people. This is a taboo subject among many journalists, especially
those claiming to have risen to the nirvana of "impartiality"
and others who profess to teach journalism. If Moore simply presented victims
in the time-honoured, ambulance-chasing way, leaving the audience tearful
but paralysed, he would have few enemies. He would not be looked down upon
as a polemicist and self-promoter and all the other pejorative tags that
await those who step beyond the invisible boundaries in societies where
wealth is said to equal freedom. The few who dig deep into the nature of
a liberal ideology that regards itself as superior, yet is responsible
for crimes epic in proportion and generally unrecognised, risk being eased
out of the "mainstream", especially if they are young a
process that a former editor once described to me as "a sort of gentle
- None has broken through like Moore, and his detractors
are perverse to say he is not a "professional journalist" when
the role of the professional journalist is so often that of zealously,
if surreptitiously, serving the status quo. Without the loyalty of these
professionals on the New York Times and other august (mostly liberal) media
institutions "of record", the criminal invasion of Iraq might
not have happened and a million people would be alive today. Deployed in
Hollywood's sanctum the cinema Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 shone
a light in their eyes, reached into the memory hole, and told the truth.
That is why audiences all over the world stood and cheered.
- What struck me when I first saw Roger and Me, Moore's
first major film, was that you were invited to like ordinary Americans
for their struggle and resilience and politics that reached beyond the
din and fakery of the American democracy industry. Moreover, it is clear
they "get it" about him: that despite being rich and famous he
is, at heart, one of them. A foreigner doing something similar risks being
attacked as "anti-American", a term Moore often uses as irony
in order to demonstrate its dishonesty. At a stroke, he sees off the kind
of guff exemplified by a recent BBC Radio 4 series that presented humanity
as pro- or anti-American while the reporter oozed about America, "the
city on the hill".
- Just as tendentious is a documentary called Manufacturing
Dissent, which appears to have been timed to discredit, if not Sicko, then
Moore himself. Made by the Canadians DebbieMelnyk and Rick Caine, it says
more about liberals who love to face both ways and the whiny jealousies
aroused by tall poppies. Melnyk tells us ad nauseam how much she admires
Moore's films and politics and is inspired by him, then proceeds to attempt
character assassination with a blunderbuss of assertions and hearsay about
his "methods", along with personal abuse, such as that of the
critic who objected to Moore's "waddle" and someone else who
said he reckoned Moore actually hated America was anti-American,
- Melnyk pursues Moore to ask him why, in his own pursuit
of an interview with Roger Smith of General Motors, he failed to mention
that he had already spoken to him. Moore has said he interviewed Smith
long before he began filming. When she twice intercepts Moore on tour,
she is rightly embarrassed by his gracious response. If there is a renaissance
of documentaries, it is not served by films such as this.
- This is not to suggest Moore should not be pursued and
challenged about whether or not he "cuts corners", just as the
work of the revered father of British documentary, JohnGrierson, has been
re-examined and questioned. But feckless parody is not the way. Turning
the camera around, as Moore has done, and revealing great power's "invisible
government" of manipulation and often subtle propaganda is certainly
one way. In doing so, the documentary-maker breaches a silence and complicity
described by Günter Grass in his confessional autobiography, Peeling
the Onion, as maintained by those "feigning their own ignorance and
vouching for another's... divert[ing] attention from something intended
to be forgotten, something that nevertheless refuses to go away".
- For me, an earlier Michael Moore was that other great
"anti-American" whistleblower, Tom Paine, who incurred the wrath
of corrupt power when he warned that if the majority of the people were
being denied "the ideas of truth", it was time to storm what
he called the "Bastille of words" and we call "the media".
That time is overdue.