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.

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