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Michael Moore Gets Ready to Roll

Will it continue to be open season on the 'scruffy guy in a baseball cap' as he prepares a new film on America's ailing health care industry?
 
 
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In early January, at the Thirty-First Annual People's Choice Awards, Michael Moore's remarkable documentary film, Fahrenheit 9/11, received the award for "Favorite Movie." Moore thanked the people for voting for the film and said that he was "amazed" to be receiving the award. He then dedicated the award to U.S. troops fighting overseas.

Moore closed by saying that he loved "making movies" and that he would take "this [award] as an invitation to make more Fahrenheit 9/11 s." Then, Moore seemed to disappear from the public eye.

However, unlike Richard Nixon, who after losing the 1962 California gubernatorial election to Pat Brown, delivered his "You-won't-have-Richard-Nixon-to-kick-around-anymore" retirement (albeit premature) speech, Moore made no such pledge.

Seven months later, Moore is about to set his cameras rolling.

Any information about a new film by Moore inevitably gets tongues wagging. This time around, months before he was even to begin shooting a new film -- provisionally entitled Sicko, about America's ailing health care industry -- a gaggle of pharmaceutical companies launched a preemptive strike against him and the film. At least six of the country's largest pharmaceutical firms sent memos to their workers warning them to be on the lookout for "a scruffy guy in a baseball cap" who asks too many questions, the Guardian reported.

"We ran a story in our online newspaper saying Moore is embarking on a documentary -- and if you see a scruffy guy in a baseball cap, you'll know who it is," Stephen Lederer, a spokesman for Pfizer Global Research and Development, told the Los Angeles Times.
"Moore's past work has been marked by negativity, so we can only assume it won't be a fair and balanced portrayal," said Rachel Bloom, executive director of corporate communications the Delaware-based firm, AstraZeneca. "His movies resemble docudramas more than documentaries."

Moore's pending film hasn't been his only endeavor attracting attention. When it was announced that Moore was one of the key organizers of the first Traverse City Film Festival -- held in the economically-distressed city of the same name *, near his home in Michigan -- some conservatives considered organizing a boycott of the five-day event held in late July.

In addition to being an unprecedented cultural opportunity for the area, many locals saw the festival as a much-needed economic shot in the arm: Michigan's former Republican Governor William Milliken, the Herrington-Fitch Foundation, and a local radio station that airs conservative talk shows like Rush Limbaugh, all helped support the endeavor.

The festival "was a success beyond anything we had imagined," Moore said in a post-festival press release. "For a city that has a population of only 20,000, to have 50,000 admissions at a film festival here, words can't describe how we feel."

Festival organizers also pointed out that fans consistently packed the house for the free daily panel discussions with directors, writers and Hollywood insiders, and more than 6,000 turned out for the festival's free outdoor showings of Casablanca and Jaws.

In an unprecedented move, festival organizers also announced that they would be purchasing copies of all 2005 films for three county library systems, and providing free public access to the movies.

Instead of a boycott, conservatives opted for their own mini-film festival, a move that likely delighted Moore, who above all else is devoted to movies. Several years back, when he was confronted by conservative filmmaker Evan Coyne Maloney -- who had hoped to "provoke a flustered reaction" that he could post on his blog at Brain-terminal.com -- Moore instead graciously suggested that documentary filmmaking "should be open to all people of all political persuasions." Moore pointed out that filmmaking "should not just be people who are liberal, or left-of-center, or whatever." He encouraged Maloney to make his movies, "and then the people will respond or not respond to them."

In recent days, right wing pundits have claimed that Moore is behind Cindy Sheehan's tent encampment just down the road from President Bush's Crawford, Texas, ranch. Sheehan's son, Army Spc. Casey Sheehan, was killed in Iraq in April 2004.

And, according to Media Matters, on a recent broadcast, radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh allowed that he would see a law that would deport "anybody who speaks out against this country." Under such a law, Limbaugh posited that "We'd get rid of Michael Moore, we'd get rid of half the Democratic party," and "That would be fabulous."

Moore-loathing reached a grand scale in 2004: Conservatives accused him of everything from being a Bush-bashing anti-American who played fast and loose with the facts in his award-winning documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11, to, well ... being a lousy tipper. And so-called moderate Democrats pegged him as part of a "Hollywood elite" that helped cost John Kerry the presidency.

Before Fahrenheit 9/11 hit the theaters in June 2004, Russo Marsh & Rogers, a Sacramento, Calif.-based public relation firm, teamed up in June with Move America Forward -- the conservative group that recently sponsored the so-called Truth Tour to Iraq -- to launch a preemptive strike against the film. The campaign, which ultimately had little impact, urged supporters to "Stop Michael Moore" by taking "action against the release of his anti-American movie."

Two conservative film festivals were initiated during the year. The American Film Renaissance, whose slogan was "Doing Film the Right Way," became the first full-fledged film festival devoted entirely to the screening of films with a conservative perspective, and several of them, including Michael Moore Hates America, were aimed directly at countering Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11.

A host of critical web sites aimed at debunking Moore's politics were established, including moorewatch.com, mooreexposed.com and bowlingfortruth.com, which attempts to take down Moore's Oscar-winning film, Bowling for Columbine. For those less verbally inclined, there's punchmichaelmooreintheface.com.

The right-leaning Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) weighed in with a fair amount of its own criticism of Moore. After last year's election, Al From, the DLC's CEO, pointed out that Democrats must "repudiate, you know, the most strident and insulting anti-American voices out there sometimes on our party's left. ... We can't have our party identified by Michael Moore and Hollywood as our cultural values."

Will Marshall, the President of the Progressive Policy Institute, the think tank of the DLC, added: "You know, let's let Hollywood and the Cannes Film Festival fawn all over Michael Moore. We ought to make it pretty clear that he sure doesn't speak for us when it comes to standing up for our country."

Even the usually mild-mannered Leon Panetta, the former Democratic congressman who served as President Clinton's White House chief of staff, had strong words about Moore, saying that the Party must do away with cultural elitism -- which he called the "Michael Moore syndrome."

Evan Coyne Maloney, the conservative New York City-based documentary filmmaker who dogged Moore a few years back, told AlterNet that he "credit[s] Michael Moore with helping bring political debate to the realm of documentary film, and I hope the medium can support a true debate, one where multiple perspectives are heard."

Maloney, who earlier this year was hailed by the conservative newspaper, the New York Sun , as perhaps "America's most promising conservative documentary filmmaker," expects "many people who share Michael Moore's political persuasion" will "be interested in seeing his take on our healthcare system."

Maloney, now putting the finishing touches on Indoctrinate U, a feature film that expands upon his Brainwashing 101, an expose of unbridled liberalism on America's colleges and universities, added that it would "be interesting to see how the general public would respond to seeing his film and, say, a film that discusses the people who've died in Canada on waiting lists for procedures that are routine here."

Meanwhile, at a press conference during the Traverse City Film Festival, Moore was asked about the health care industry's concern about his upcoming film. Bemused as he often is by his attackers, Moore pointed out that the HMOs already seemed to be "totally discombobulated," even though he hadn't yet shot a single frame.

*[Correction: several readers have suggested that Traverse City is not "economically distressed." According to Eartha Melser of the Washington Blade, "Traverse City is a thriving place, three and a half hours, by car, northwest of Flint. This will be seen as a glaring factual problem by people familiar with Michigan." We regret the error.]

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement who writes pieces documenting the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the U.S. right-wing movement.