WASHINGTON // The constituents are swarming through the Rayburn House Office Building. At the House Judiciary Committee offices, an elderly couple hopes Chairman John Conyers Jr. can address a friend's immigration problem, but an aide explains that the committee can only change laws, not intervene for individuals.
While this drama unfolds quietly in the reception area, a political-action comedy takes screwball form in the rear quarters. Movieland publicity and political pep-rallying fuse with the appearance of a citizen who casts a bigger shadow.
"I'm an activist-citizen -- but, wait -- isn't that redundant? Every citizen should be an activist."
Of course, it's Michael Moore speaking.
Michael Moore doesn't come to Capitol Hill like James Stewart, armed only with his ideals and boyish resilience. He's going to Washington after an 18-year film and video career of rousing discussion over corporate profit-taking, gun control, imperial adventurism and now, the medical industry, with Sicko, opening Friday.
He has wreaked havoc on the misfit-idealist paradigm: The outsider no one can control has become a political and cultural force everyone has to reckon with. The filmmaker keeps expanding his appeal as polls show increasing numbers of Americans agreeing with his theme that they live in a great country that has lost its way.
"It's 'We the people,' not 'Me the people,'" Moore says. "'We' is the first word of our public language."
On this mild Wednesday in Washington, medical industry workers and members of Congress take up his call for a new, single-payer health plan for all Americans, for all their lives. Before the day is out, he will be on a podium in a House conference room, standing pleased and poised as Conyers praises him for never changing -- in his values and "belief system," if not, Conyers jokes, his fluctuating weight.
This filmmaker has given Americans the idea that documentaries can be fun while bashing the U.S. elite and turning himself into a cracker-barrel philosopher; now he has come to spread the word about his latest filmed expose. Sicko is a cry of pain and a blast of gallows humor over the state of the American health care system. At least one commentator -- Moore's friend and ally, political comedian Bill Maher -- considers this an epochal achievement: the first Moore movie that could immediately shape public policy.
And here is Moore in his sneaks, rumpled sports jacket and blue-and-black plaid shirt, nudging that probability along. He is getting debriefed by his show-biz / political posse before appearing at a news conference and briefing with Conyers of Michigan, Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and other supporters of HR 676: The U.S. National Health Insurance Act.
Having just come from a meeting with health care industry workers at the AFL-CIO building, Moore settles into a big back room with his entourage -- including big-time publicist Kenneth Sunshine, who has also represented Barbra Streisand, Justin Timberlake, Ben Affleck and several unions. Fifteen minutes later, Moore emerges to ask whether he can eat his lunch before the interview.
Moore registers instantly as the same ingratiating regular guy who initially came to the public eye with Roger & Me (1989). That first-person chronicle of life in the devastated GM factory town of Flint, Mich., won comparisons to Mark Twain and established Moore as a populist multimedia entertainer. Its success led to a couple of TV shows (TV Nation and The Awful Truth), three best-selling books (the most recent was Dude, Where's My Country, in 2003) and five more films, including the first documentary blockbuster, Fahrenheit 9 / 11 (2004).
After his pasta with meat sauce, he makes time to talk. But he has barely settled down to chat when the door opens, and Conyers pokes his head in to ask how Moore is. Moore responds warmly to the powerful Democrat: "I'm great; how are you?"
"I hope you like my digs," Conyers says, with a gesture that takes in the generous sitting area and the book-lined walls.
"Much better than the last couple of years," Moore answers with a cackle, alluding to the shift in power that resulted in a new Democratic majority in the House.
"Considerably," Conyers replies dryly.
Then Moore flashes a look that indicates, "Don't worry. I really do like talking about movies."
Moore can hobnob with powerful Washington types. But he insists that his first goal is simply to make a great film, full of passion and humor and energy -- everything else comes afterward.
And he has taken a central place in the movie firmament. Nearly ever documentary filmmaker interviewed for background for this story gives Moore credit for opening up the field and broadening the audience for their own work.