STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Michael Moore's latest film does not open nationwide until next week, but it's never too early to start the provocation. The satirical filmmaker's latest production is called "Sicko." It's an attack on the health care system, and Moore appears in Washington D.C. today with two congressmen to talk about health care. He already has the attention of the government. The U.S. Treasury Department is investigating a trip that Moore took to Cuba for part of his filming. That trip may have violated the U.S. trade embargo on the island.
Now, once the movie opens the controversy is likely to continue because Michael Moore is a folk hero to some and to others a manipulator of facts.
NPR's Kim Masters reports.
(Soundbite of demonstration)
CROWD: Insurance greed has got to go. Hey hey, ho ho.
KIM MASTERS: It's a hot June afternoon. And Michael Moore is preaching to the choir in Sacramento.
(Soundbite of cheering)
MASTERS: First, he attends a legislative briefing in the Capitol building - cheered on by a crowd of health care workers.
Mr. MICHAEL MOORE (Filmmaker): I believe that these insurance companies are a criminal racket.
MASTERS: Then he addresses a rally sponsored by the California Nurses Association.
Mr. MOORE: We believe that you have a human right to see a doctor whenever you get sick.
MASTERS: To some, Moore is a champion for making the film "Sicko." Rose Ann DeMoro is executive director of the California Nurses Association. When her group held a rally at the State Capitol a few weeks ago, the local media covered a frog jumping contest instead.
Ms. ROSE ANN DeMORO (California Nurses Association): Today we have international press out here because Michael Moore, notorious as he is, brings life to this issue.
MASTERS: Moore is everywhere these days promoting "Sicko." The film paints a sobering picture of health care in America. It shows sick patients being dumped on Skid Row in Los Angeles, an accident victim who has to choose which finger to have reattached since he can't afford to pay for both. Some of the worst stories involve those who have insurance but are denied coverage or are overwhelmed by high deductibles. In his film Moore says the consequences are undeniable.
(Soundbite of movie, "Sicko")
Mr. MOORE: And the United States slips to 37th in health care around the world, just slightly ahead of Slovenia.
MASTERS: In an interview the day before the Sacramento rally, Moore said he's usually been ahead of the times when he's picked his subject matter. But this is different.
Mr. MOORE: All the polls show that it's the number one domestic issue and it will be in the upcoming election, so maybe this time I will have synched myself up on the same place where the American public is at.
MASTERS: Actually, independent polls, including ones by Gallup, indicate that health care isn't number one, but it's up there. And Moore is hoping "Sicko" will sharpen the focus with an election looming. Certainly some in the industry are concerned. The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America issued a statement denouncing Moore's film sight unseen. A spokesman declined our interview request.
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MASTERS: Moore has been controversial from the time he made "Roger & Me," his 1989 movie about the ravaging effects of General Motors layoffs on Moore's hometown of Flint, Michigan. The film revolved around Moore's pursuit of GM's chief executive at the time.
(Soundbite of "Roger & Me")
Mr. MOORE: My mission was a simple one: to convince Roger Smith to spend a day with me in Flint and meet some of the people who are losing their jobs.
MASTERS: Instantly, critics attacked Moore for fudging facts to strengthen his case or to make his movie funnier. Film Comment magazine cited several examples, including a sequence in which displaced workers met with Ronald Reagan, then a presidential candidate, though that wasn't made clear, in a pizza parlor.
(Soundbite of "Roger & Me")
Mr. MOORE: None of Reagan's luncheon guests got back into the factory in the ensuing years, and the only bright spot to come out of whole affair was the individual who borrowed the restaurant's cash register on the way out the door.
MASTERS: Actually, the cash register had been stolen a day or so before Reagan's visit. Moore attributes the discrepancy to a misstatement by the restaurant's owner. But such glitches prompted Pauline Kael, the late New Yorker film critic, to call the film a piece of gonzo demagoguery. Kael made Moore out to be a precursor to Borat, exploiting dupes to make his point.
Mr. MOORE: She was just mad at me.
MASTERS: Moore says when the film came out, Kael wanted a copy to watch at her home, but he insisted she attend a regular screening.
Mr. MOORE: Listen to me, you know, mister guy from Flint, making a 100 bucks a week, and I'm going, no, I don't care who she is writing for the New Yorker, make her come down and watch the movie.
MASTERS: Moore says he regretted that almost instantly, but he dismisses her challenges and all others to his films.
Mr. MOORE: I make sure that all the facts in my movie are absolutely 100 percent true, and I'm very, very concerned about that because I want people to listen to my opinion and that opinion is based on these facts.
MASTERS: Jack Matthews, film critic for the New York Daily News, isn't convinced. He thinks Moore is a brilliant filmmaker, but says he's lowered the bar for documentaries.
Mr. JACK MATTHEWS (Film Critic, New York Daily News): I share his politics, generally, but I don't like his style.
MASTERS: Matthews was appalled by Moore's confrontation with gun rights advocate Charleton Heston in the 2002 film "Bowling for Columbine." The movie implies that Heston attended a rally in Flint, Michigan just after a six-year-old girl there had been shot and killed. Moore appears at Heston's house, snags an interview and asks the seemingly frail actor if he felt insensitive because the community had just suffered the loss of the child. Eventually Heston walks out.
(Soundbite of "Bowling for Columbine")
Mr. MOORE: This is her. Mr. Heston, please don't leave. Mr. Heston, please. Take a look at her. This is the girl.
MASTERS: In fact, Heston attended the rally in Flint eight months after the child was killed. Moore is unapologetic.
Mr. MOORE: Yes, somebody should go knock on his door, and yes, somebody should ask him some hard questions. And he was the president of the NRA at that time. A year or so later he came down with Alzheimer's and resigned. And of course I feel, you know, very bad that he eventually got Alzheimer's. He didn't have Alzheimer's when I interviewed him.
MASTERS: The real fault, Moore says, lies with the mainstream media, which he says never holds his villains to account.
Mr. MOORE: I mean it really is disgusting when a guy in a ballcap with a high school education is the one asking the tough questions. Criticize me? No. Somebody really should show up and say thanks.
MASTERS: Certainly many health care workers are saying exactly that. But in "Sicko" Moore has once again opened the door to critics, partly because he paints the systems in other countries in such glowing colors.
Mr. MOORE: Everyone, anyone, can go to the hospital, can go to a doctor, and never have to worry about paying a bill, and those countries - Britain, France, Canada - the people on those countries all live longer than we do.
MASTERS: Even, he insists, in Cuba.
Mr. MOORE: On average they live, in Cuba, a month longer than we do.
MASTERS: Actually, our research suggests that Americans edge out Cubans, but not by much. Moore acknowledges he's heard complaints about supply shortages in Cuba and he's heard about long waits for treatment in Great Britain and Canada. But he says those reports are anecdotal, and he's quick to take on those who questioned him.
Mr. MOORE: This is the typical, you know, NPR afraid of being accused of having liberal bias, so let's make sure we attack him enough in this piece.
MASTERS: Did we? Kim Masters, NPR News.
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INSKEEP: And you can decide for yourself about "Sicko." It's not on YouTube. A pirated version of the documentary was on the video-sharing site over the weekend, but YouTube pulled it off after receiving a copyright claim from the distributor.