As Michael Moore stood on the west steps of the Capitol on Tuesday and led 1,000 activists in chanting "It's time for them to go" -- health insurance companies, that is -- he looked less like a Hollywood director promoting his new takedown of the health care industry and more like the frontman of a national political campaign.
That's because he is both.
In the days before Moore's film "Sicko" opens June 29 in 3,000 theaters nationwide, the director will be the centerpiece of a campaign that melds activism, policy, politics and Hollywood into a media force like no other widely released film. The campaign premiered Tuesday in Sacramento -- complete with nurses wearing red surgical scrubs and chanting "Hey-hey! Ho-ho! Private health care is sick-o!"
Moore's day started with a closed-door tete-a-tete with Assembly Speaker Fabian NÃƒÂºñez, D-Los Angeles, followed by a joint news conference before 15 TV cameras, where NÃƒÂºñez was flanked by posters for the movie and Moore diplomatically praised their "excellent meeting," even though NÃƒÂºñez supports a plan that doesn't immediately offer universal coverage, as Moore wants.
Then it was off to an "unofficial" public briefing led by state Sen. Sheila Kuehl, D-Santa Monica -- whose single-payer plan Moore supports -- followed by a Capitol rally and march anchored by 1,000 members of the California Nurses Association, whose anecdotes over the years helped to inspire Moore to make the film. Then Moore screened the movie.
The word echoing around the Capitol building Tuesday wasn't "movie." It was "movement." Funny, Moore said, "how they both have the same root word: 'movie,' 'movement.' "
"I always set out to make a movie that people will enjoy, have a good time watching on Friday night," Moore told The Chronicle on Tuesday. "I'm asking for a little something here. I'm going to provide the entertainment, but I'm hoping that a certain percentage of the audience will be thinking about the issues that I raised, and a certain percentage of them will go out and do something."
The film is a godsend for those like the powerful nurses union and assorted health policy wonks who support its single-payer, free universal coverage message.
"This movie validates what we do every day," said Margie Keenan after seeing the movie Tuesday. The Long Beach registered nurse flew north to attend the festivities. She hopes it will spur a public dialogue. "This is going to change everything."
When the movie opens, Keenan will be among activist members of the California Nurses Association and doctors with the Physicians for a National Health Care Program who will stand in front of theaters handing out information on the legislative bills and telling filmgoers how they can get involved.
Everybody gets something in this movie-movement deal. The film gets real-life promotion from those working on health care's front lines. Reform advocates get star power from Moore. And, both filmmaker and activists believe, the public could ultimately receive better, less expensive health care if they're successful.
Today, Moore's campaign stops in San Francisco, where the filmmaker will meet with Mayor Gavin Newsom at City Hall to discuss the city's groundbreaking health coverage plan. Over the next few weeks, similar stops by Moore are planned in Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New Hampshire. The online activist hub MoveOn.org plans to ask its 3.2 million members to support the film, distribute information outside theaters and lobby Congress, much as it received pledges from 110,000 members to see Moore's previous film, "Fahrenheit 9/11," on opening weekend.
Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., whose congressional health care bill the campaign supports, said Tuesday: "The release of Michael Moore's 'Sicko' is one of the most important developments in the national debate on our health care crisis since the Clintons attempted to pass universal health care legislation in 1994."
A more subdued Moore has been doing the talk show rounds over the past few weeks during which his newfound, more apolitical approach -- Republican bashing was comparatively infrequent Tuesday -- found support from Oprah Winfrey. Last week on her show, Winfrey praised Moore, saying, "You are opening the door (on this issue), but we need to get Americans talking about it. Republicans talking about it, Democrats talking about it."
Chris Lehane, the San Francisco-based political communications consultant who is coordinating the Hollywood-activist-policy campaign for the Weinstein Co., producers of the film, said: "Michael Moore approached this film from day one as a call to action. So we're putting together the types of events and activities around it as though it was a political campaign."
More than a decade ago, Lehane was an aide in the Clinton White House when then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton was trying to overhaul the nation's health care system. "We lost control of the debate," Lehane said of the Clinton health care effort. This time, however, he thinks it will be different. For one, after concerns about the Iraq war, Americans tell pollsters that health care is their biggest worry.
Last month, Moore invited Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of the California Nurses Association, to a private screening of "Sicko" in New York for 50 people, including many of those who appeared in the film. Afterward, DeMoro said she asked Moore "to do Sacramento with us." He quickly agreed, and the campaign snowballed from there.
"Very early on, (the nurses) were out front on this issue and have been very supportive of me," Moore said. "And I was very supportive of them in terms of hoping that this issue would come to the forefront. And now it is."
Changing a multibillion-dollar system will take a lot of bipartisan effort. But forget reshaping policy for a moment. How can Moore persuade conservatives just to see his film? Many not only loathe him for the Bush-bashing in "Fahrenheit 9/11," they mistrust him.
"They don't anymore," Moore told The Chronicle, alluding to how many of the points he made in "Fahrenheit" about the run-up to the Iraq war have become common knowledge. "Some of my strongest letters of support (now) come from conservatives, former Republicans who feel like they've been had. They realize that I was actually standing up for them and trying to speak the truth," he said.
But no big-name conservatives have stepped up yet to support his universal health care campaign.
"Well," Moore said. "Fox News reviewed the film at Cannes and called it 'brilliant' and 'uplifting.' That's a start."
"Sicko" isn't kind to Hillary Clinton, who is now running for president. The audience hissed Tuesday when the film noted she was among the Senate leaders in campaign donations from health industry companies, just a few years after she failed to change the system.
But in searching for an apolitical tone to talk about "Sicko," nurses union leader DeMoro said Moore may have found an apolitical target.
"Oh, come on," DeMoro said. "Who likes the insurance industry?"
Chronicle staff writer Victoria Colliver contributed to this report. E-mail Joe Garofoli at email@example.com.
© 2007 The San Francisco Chronicle