Dr. Documentary

Michael Moore, chief resident of that film genre, gives a grave diagnosis to his latest patient: the "Sicko" U.S. health-care system.

Michael Moore, who's not exactly built like David Beckham, is using a soccer metaphor. The portly documentarian - who discovered "these things called fruits and vegetables," and began a walking regimen, when he was making Sicko, his stirring screed against America's health-care industry - wants us to follow him as he dribbles, kicks and trots.

"I'll be the first one to take the ball down the field here," he says. "But people have got to come along. And that's why, in this film, I expect the audience to be the protagonist, not me."

In Sicko, unlike his groundbreaking 1989 doc Roger & Me, or his Oscar-winning 2002 doc Bowling for Columbine, the baseball-capped Michigander doesn't go waddling into the marbled lobbies of corporate America demanding face time with the CEOs. A passionate attack on the "managed care" system, and on pharmaceutical companies, Sicko points fingers at the nation's health-care titans (including Cigna, headquartered in Liberty Place), but leaves the talking to regular Joes and Janes who were denied treatment by their providers. Denied, the film posits, for the sake of profits.

Sicko, which opens in Philadelphia Friday, is Moore's funny, sly, heartfelt plea for a national plan, for universal coverage like they have in Canada, in France, in the United Kingdom.

And like they have in Cuba, where Moore, in the movie, pulls off the canny stunt of taking a boatload of Americans turned down by their insurers to be tended to by doctors at a big Havana hospital. For free.

Moore says he didn't feel the need, or the journalistic duty, to get a response from health-care giants, "because they already have their story out there - it's called the nightly news."

"Every ad is from the pharmaceutical companies, practically," he says, on the phone from Washington, where he screened Sicko for members of Congress Wednesday night. "And the mainstream media does such a good job of telling their story. Our newsweeklies will often have 12-page health-care supplements . . . and just about every local news station in America has something called 'Tonight's Health Report' brought to you by blankety-blank pharmaceuticals. . . .

"I'm sure most Americans have heard about those long waiting lines in Canada, that socialized medicine is evil.

"I act to provide balance, that's my job. Contrary to the way I'm portrayed, as a person who has a bias, I'm actually trying to present another side that doesn't get presented, whose voice is often not heard. And so, if I come along for two hours every three years to say a few words from the other side of the fence here, I hope that people see it as a good thing."

Well, not everyone.

The folks at FreeMarketCure.com, a new film Web site that calls government-run health care "a dangerous fantasy," offers interviews with Canadians who traveled to the United States for vital surgery rather than wait for months for an operation at home.

Jim Kenefick, founder of MooreWatch.com, one of the most prominent of a slew of anti-Moore sites on the Internet, had this to say about the man and his movies in Newsweek: "He gives people quick peeks, juxtaposing images that stir people up but don't give them enough information to make judgments for themselves. He's harming the big picture with his chicanery - with his ridiculous, malicious, dishonest and deceitful ways of doing things."

Although not mentioned by name, Kenefick is actually in Sicko: Moore sent his cyber-nemesis a $12,000 check - anonymously - after Kenefick blogged last year that he might have to shut down MooreWatch.com because of huge medical bills incurred by his wife. Moore, who 'fessed up to Kenefick just before Sicko premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, was told by friends and colleagues that it was a bad idea to send the money to his "enemy."

Moore felt otherwise. He says he was coming from "a good place in my heart." It provides a sweet moment of irony in the movie, too.

Moore's ability to combine aggressive reportage with goofy humor, to mix a kind of gaping faux naivete with killer journalistic instincts, to blend his lefty politics with a deep-seated compassion for the working man (and woman) has made him, and his work, hugely successful. At 53, Moore's a millionaire with political clout. He's loved and he's loathed. Fahrenheit 9/11, his 2004 release about President Bush's rush to war after the attacks of Sept. 11, is the top-grossing documentary in box-office history (more than $220 million worldwide).

In fact, in many quarters, Moore is documentary filmmaking. Ask people to name another contemporary American nonfiction film director and see what happens. Usually nothing.

"It's an unfortunate reality right now that that landscape is so limited that one single figure has come to define a genre," says Eugene Jarecki, the director of Why We Fight, the 2005 Sundance festival grand jury winner that made a modest dent, about $4 million, in theaters and on DVD. But Jarecki, while wishing his field had a few more stars, credits Moore for providing "an enormous tide that lifts all boats."

He's made the form commercially viable, Jarecki says, which makes it easier for other directors, with different stories and different points of view, to get their work out there.

"Michael Moore resonates at a very populist level, in the same way that Frank Capra's characters did," Jarecki says. "When Jimmy Stewart would travel to Washington to speak truth to power . . . that's an old American story, and Michael Moore is the latest chapter in it.

"And he's certainly not alone. He inspires many by his example, and he does it on a mass scale, which can only help buoy the efforts of smaller, perhaps less comic, perhaps less agitating voices - but voices in their own right."

Moore, for his part, says, "I think I helped to take the stigma off the word. But now, of course, it's incumbent upon other documentary filmmakers to make entertaining documentaries. If they still want to make the old stuff that tastes like castor oil, then people won't go."

The Weinstein Co., which is marketing Sicko, has been doing everything it can to make sure people do show up. After a master copy of the film made its way to the Internet last weekend, triggering a torrent of free downloads, the Weinsteins moved the release of Sicko up in New York. And a wave of "sneak previews" took place across the country last night.

Moore, who doesn't support U.S. copyright laws, nonetheless wasn't thrilled when his movie made its way to the Web. He suggests that powers-that-be - he's not saying what kind of powers, or where they might be - were behind the Sicko piracy.

"I guess if I were a cop, I would ask the question, who has a motive to try and destroy the opening weekend of this movie? Because, remember, this is not some kid going to the theater with a video camera. That's not what's out on the Internet. This is a master [copy]. So, clearly it was an inside job.

"So who had the resources to do that? Who had an interest in doing that? These are just the questions I would ask. Who would stand to gain from it? And then I would go from there."

Conspiracy theories, anyone?

"I hope that people go to see the movie the way I intended it to be screened," adds the celebrity gadfly and cinema provocateur. "If I wanted to do TV, I'd make TV shows. If I wanted to do Internet content, that's what I would do.

"But I make movies in the hopes that people will go see them on a 40-foot screen. So, I hope that's what happens."

And then he hopes that audiences will follow him out of the theaters and do something to change the state of health care in the United States.

"People have got to come along," Moore says. "I don't want the audience sitting there living vicariously through me. I want them to join me, I want them to be me and I'll be them, and we'll all do this together."

The Top Docs

Here are the top documentary films ranked by domestic box-office receipts. Films in bold type were directed by Michael Moore:

1. Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)

$119.2 million

2. March of the Penguins (2005) $77.4 million

3. An Inconvenient Truth (2006) $24.1 million

4. Bowling for Columbine (2002) $21.6 million

5. Madonna: Truth or Dare (1991) $15 million

6. Winged Migration (2003) $11.7 million

7. Super Size Me (2004)

$11.5 million

8. Mad Hot Ballroom (2005) $8.1 million

9. Hoop Dreams (1994)

$7.8 million

10. Tupac: Resurrection (2003) $7.7 million

11. Roger & Me (1989)

$6.7 million

SOURCE: Box Office Mojo

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.