July 11, 2007
Sicko Flatlines and Michael Moore Lashes OutBy Peter Barry Chowka
Michael Moore's Sicko premiered in New York City on June 22 and nationally on June 29 after several weeks of promotion, hype, and mainstream media interest, most of it from a pro-universal health care slant. The attention that was generated completely dwarfed that accorded to any other documentary film in history. As of July 10th, there were 5,726 news articles in response to the keyword "sicko" linked from Google News. Many if not most of the articles were unique, not carbon copies, with datelines all over the country. One analysis of a major sample of the reviews found that 91% of them were positive. Typically, mild criticisms of some aspect of Moore's film making or his credibility are overshadowed by praise and agreement with his prescription for America (single payer government-run health care).
Still, after ten days in wide national distribution, Sicko was performing below expectations. In an interview in Time on May 17, Moore claimed that with Sicko he was moving beyond the leftist ideology of his previous films and more towards the political center: "This film does cut across party lines." On June 20, another Time article (like most mainstream media, Time covered Sicko and Moore repeatedly from every angle) was titled "Michael Moore: 'I'm Mainstream Now.'" Clearly, Moore and his army of supporters were positioning the film for mainstream acceptance and hit status beyond Fahrenheit 9/11's-his previous film and the most successful money-making documentary in the history of motion pictures.
But the box office numbers tell the story: In Sicko's first three day weekend after it opened nationally on June 29 in 702 theaters, its total gross was $3,600,179 or an average of $5,128 per theater. Fahrenheit 9/11 opened in 868 theaters on June 23, 2004 and grossed $23,920,637 over that three day weekend, for an average of $27,558 per screen-more than five times the per screen take for Sicko. Fahrenheit ultimately grossed $119,194,771 during a 114 day theatrical run in the U.S.
One doesn't have to be an expert in the motion picture business to know that Sicko is not going to come close to Fahrenheit's success. (The source for Sicko's numbers is here, and for Fahrenheit's here.)
The bad box office news seems to have gotten under Michael Moore's skin.
On Monday, CNN viewers were treated to an unexpected and uncharacteristic smackdown as a seemingly out of control Moore unloaded on Wolf Blitzer during a ten minute-long tirade on the late afternoon daily news program The Situation Room. (Transcript here, video streams here and accessible from this CNN page.) Irked by the network's fairly toothless fact checking report about Sicko that aired right before he came on, producer-writer-director Moore lashed out at CNN for being a tool of the pharmaceutical industry. He also said that CNN has not been critical enough of the Bush Administration Iraq war policy and he described CNN's programming as "crap."
Moore repeatedly accused CNN of misrepresentations, specifically of "fudging the facts," not only about Sicko but about his previous film, the virulently anti-Bush Fahrenheit 9/11. But Moore obfuscated, misrepresented, or lied repeatedly himself, as when he said "There's no taping with me," meaning that he only does live broadcast interviews in order to prevent his words from being edited. (Fact: on June 29, PBS devoted its entire weekly program NOW to a prerecorded interview with Moore, obviously with the full cooperation of the subject.)
Moore also criticized CNN for not having him on the air during the past three years. (Counter claim: Blitzer said Moore had been invited to appear repeatedly but had declined, an assertion Moore did not challenge.) And Moore insisted that American doctors prefer to treat patients whose care is paid for by the federal government's Medicare program. (Fact: this assertion is an example of the Big Lie in action, absurd on the face of it, but shouted with an air of vehement, aggressive bluster-see for example this article from OB/GYN News, "Falling Medicare reimbursement crimps access-Physicians Limit or Drop Medicare Patients.")
Descending further to a questionable level of taste and decorum, Moore, during his on air rant, appeared to exaggerate the pronunciation of the name of CNN's chief medical reporter Sanjay Gupta, M.D., the correspondent on the network's Sicko-fact checking reports.
(In reality, Moore was attacking a straw man, since Gupta came across as more or less sympathetic to Sicko. The conclusion of Gupta's piece: "There's no perfect [health care] system anywhere. But no matter how much Moore fudged the facts, and he did fudge some facts, there's one everyone agrees on: The system here should be far better.")
Blitzer, a leading CNN correspondent and anchor since 1990, seemed blindsided by Moore's antics and was barely capable of responding, or of professionally conducting the interview. (Instead, Moore appeared to be in control.) After being introduced live from a studio in Detroit (Blitzer meanwhile was at The Situation Room's home base in Washington, D.C.), Moore was allowed to talk uninterrupted for over two minutes. This unimpeded opportunity to rant was unprecedented in modern day cable TV news formats.
During the ten-minute long segment, the best that Blitzer could do was to point out that CNN had broadcast commercial spots for Sicko and to defend Gupta: "I don't know if you're familiar with Dr. Sanjay Gupta's record, but I would stack up his record on medical issues with virtually anyone in the business. . . Sanjay Gupta is not only a doctor and neurosurgeon, but he's also an excellent, excellent journalist." Judging by his body language, Moore seemed unimpressed.
Instead of asking any probing questions in the limited time that was available, Blitzer tried to placate Moore, as if he was terrified of a large and menacing schoolyard bully. With an air of obsequious pleading audible in his voice, Blitzer said things like "Look, I saw the film [Sicko], and it's a powerful, powerful ..." "Those are fair questions." "There's plenty to talk about with 'Sicko.'"
Blitzer, who said he had seen Sicko, commented "you're very, very bipartisan in your criticism in the film, Democrats and Republicans." At that point, I wondered if he had seen the film. Moore defended Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY): "I actually think she did a very brave thing to try and address this issue 14 years ago. And they stopped her cold. They went after her with the same kind of, you know, trash pieces I just had to watch. And so that stopped her. And now we've had to suffer through 14 more years of having no universal healthcare in this country." Moore also singled out former Vice President Al Gore for special praise: "He's right about global warming and he's right on this issue, too."
When Blitzer said that the show was ending and they were out of time, Moore said sarcastically "We're out of time! I'll see you in three years." Blitzer then pleaded with Moore to stay so they could tape another interview segment off air and show it on Tuesday's program. It was at that point that Moore insisted that he only does live interviews.
When the entire Moore segment (Gupta's fact checking report followed by the Blitzer-Moore interaction) was shown on CNN again two hours later, however, Blitzer announced that Moore had remained to answer more questions on tape. "He did agree after that interview to stick around. We taped part two. You will see it, completely unedited. The full interview."
It is unprecedented for a news network to agree to a guest's demands that an interview be shown in its entirety with no editing.
It does not seem unreasonable to think that Moore's performance with Blitzer on CNN was, in large part, calculated to generate controversy about and rekindle interest in the lagging Sicko box office. Several times, Moore promoted his Web site where he said he would "correct" CNN: "I'm going to put the real facts up there on my Web site so people can see what he [Gupta] said was wrong." In fact, before the night was over, almost the entire home page of michaelmoore.com was devoted to the CNN-Moore brouhaha, with video of Moore's appearance and links to new content including screeds like "CNN vs. THE FACTS" and "Demand an apology from CNN." At 1 pm EDT on July 10, Moore's Web site was temporarily not available-possibly due to high demand whipped up by bloggers and media outlets inspired by Moore's extreme and ultimately self-serving antics on CNN. Moore's schtick was like throwing red meat to his large core fan base that already thinks that CNN is right of center, too soft on (if not in cahoots with) the Bush-Cheney administration, and complicit in the selling of the Iraq war to the American people.