Can Movies Make a Difference?

Michael Moore's new movie, "Sicko," a cinematic skewering of America's health care system, will open to the public Friday. But it's already playing to the body politic.

California legislators who are considering a state-run universal health care bill got a special screening of the movie earlier this week. That same day in Sacramento, Moore spoke at a rally of California nurses who marched off to their own screening of "Sicko."

Meanwhile, the U.S. Treasury Department is investigating Moore for what became the movie's showpiece: Moore took ailing Sept. 11 rescue workers to Cuba to dramatize the notion that Cubans and even U.S. prisoners at Guantanamo get better health care than these Americans. In doing so, the government said he may have violated restrictions on travel to Cuba.

While it is unlikely that one movie can set the listing American health care system right, "Sicko" has already stirred controversy and raised questions about the impact it and other recent movies like it can have.

Moore himself clearly intends to use the movie as a lobbying tool as his appearance in Sacramento demonstrates. And on ABC's "Good Morning America" this week, he said the point of "Sicko" is that "it's the actual system itself that has to be upended."

Are the gadfly director's ambitions for his movie unrealistic? Jesse Drew, who teaches documentary film at the University of California Davis, argues that documentaries can alter policy and culture. He thinks "Sicko" will amplify the pressure on policymakers to reform health care.

"It will open to a mass audience," he said, "and it's not going to be lost on politicians. They know that many of their constituents will see these issues raised and there's going to be a link made that they have to deal with some of these issues."

McDonald's Roasted in 2004 Documentary

If a link between a movie and institutional change sounds farfetched, consider "Super Size Me," the 2004 black comedy that documented Morgan Spurlock's 30-day McDonald's-only diet. As his physical and even mental health deteriorated, he interviewed nutrition and marketing experts about America's fast food fixation.

"Super Size Me" started generating "buzz" in January 2004 when it got an award at the Sundance Film Festival. Publicity surrounding "Super Size Me" continued that spring, and McDonald's faced a media barrage about the extent to which its offerings were contributing to the problem of obesity in America.

Six weeks before the film's May opening, McDonald's announced an end to supersized portions. The company denied that the move was connected in any way to Spurlock's documentary, saying in a statement at the time that the idea was "menu simplification."

Whether McDonald's acted in response to "Super Size Me" may not be clear, but the movie does have a visceral impact. And that, combined with the fact that it became the seventh highest grossing documentary ever, certainly could have increased pressure on the chain to serve healthier fare.

Drew said he shows "Super Size Me" to his teenaged students and he notices "a change in attitude. You can't look at that and not think, 'Gross. That's disgusting."

Spurlock insists he did not make the movie with preconceived notions in mind.

"I had no idea what was going to happen to my body. You can't predict this. I wanted to make a movie about fast food and obesity. That was it," he said.

But sizing up "Super Size Me" now, Spurlock believes the movie "did a lot to make people step back and take a look at the choices they make about how they eat and live."

What About Politics?

If a documentary can alter personal or corporate behavior, can it also alter politics? That's the question raised by the success of "An Inconvenient Truth," the documentary movie featuring Al Gore's scary lecture on global warming.

The movie is the third-highest-grossing documentary, and it won an Oscar. Its achievements are "proof," said ABC News political director David Chalian, "that it's not only impacting the debate but drawing people into the debate" about global warming and energy policy.

Chalian noted that all the presidential candidates now talk about lessening dependence on oil and that two of them (Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson) are even running ads about global warming.

"Al Gore has clearly tapped into something and helped put this issue at the top of the presidential agenda in both parties," Chalian said.

"That's what movies can do," said Michael Renov, a documentary expert at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts. "They can become a touchstone, a springboard, a common experience that can push forward the public conversation."

Movies often cited as examples of influential modern documentaries include "The Thin Blue Line," a 1988 release that proved the innocence of a man wrongfully convicted of murder in Texas. Some critics say it prompted a re-examination of the death penalty. Another is "Columbia Revolt," a short film about the student takeover of buildings at Columbia University in 1968. Renov said that the movie helped galvanize the student anti-war movement in the late '60s.

But another scholar of documentary films is skeptical about the impact of the new wave of documentaries.

"I just have a feeling that films like 'Roger & Me' and 'An Inconvenient Truth' are sort of preaching to the choir," said Eric Smoodin, who also teaches at the University of California Davis. To find examples that had a truly profound effect on society, he argues "you'd have to go back to Edward R. Murrow in the 1950s, when documentaries he made like 'Harvest of Shame' had a significant impact on people's attitudes."

No Bonanza at the Box Office

A look at box office numbers suggests skepticism about the impact of documentaries is warranted. Compared to feature films, even top-grossing documentaries (with just a few exceptions) are nowhere near as popular and earn minuscule returns.

For example, the worldwide gross for "An Inconvenient Truth" stands at $49,414,997, according to movie data Web site Meanwhile, "Twister," for example -- No. 50 among feature films -- took in 10 times more at the box office.

It's a safe bet that the moviegoers who will turn out in droves for this summer's blockbusters like "Ocean's 13" will not flock in similar numbers to "Sicko."

However, how many see these movies may be less important than the who that sees them.

"I don't think these things translate at a popular level," said Todd Boyd, a critical studies professor at the University of Southern California.School of Cinematic Arts. "They translate amongst prominent, influential people."

They also apparently translate among younger people. According to UC Davis' Drew, these modern personal documentaries, starting with Moore's "Roger & Me" and including "Super Size Me," resonate with much younger audiences who "just don't believe the big traditional documentary voice of God, the omniscient narrator who tells you what's going on."

So now with Spurlock and Moore in the role of the bumbling renegade, Drew said, "It's almost like those 'Jackass' movies which appeal to a lot of young people."

And in that younger audience are Internet users, text messagers and bloggers responsible for what many advertisers now call "viral marketing": the phenomenon of seemingly small ideas or trends that spread quickly to a much larger culture.

So the message of a movie perceived as fun or hip can become widely known even if it isn't widely viewed, at least by traditional box office measures.

Spurlock believes a comedic approach was essential to his movie's success:

"If you can make a film that deals with a very serious issue funny and engaging, and you can have people laugh, you can have that barrier come down to where they actually become receptive to the information. You can make a movie that can have an impact and make a difference."

Whether documentaries now have the same power as they did in Edward R. Murrow's day may be an open question. But Drew thinks the old master would be "pleased with the way documentary film is moving because it has to morph and stay in tune with what's going on in the culture to be effective."