Michael Moore's "Sicko" posted an impressive $4.5 million on 441 screens, the second highest opening for a documentary after "Fahrenheit 9/11."
As the movie rolls out across the country, Moore is hoping to greatly influence the narrative of the health care debate, particularly in the ongoing presidential campaigns.
Moore and his supporters are asking all presidential candidates to sign a pledge supporting free, universal health care, the end of private insurance companies' involvement in care, greater oversight and regulation of pharmaceutical companies and a vow not to take campaign money from the health care industry.
But save for Fred Thompson's attacks on Moore's trip to Cuba, the campaigns have as yet been silent on the movie.
On Friday, I talked to Chris Lehane, Moore's political adviser on the movie, who nevertheless credits "Sicko" for having an impact "on the discourse."
Moore and groups like the California Nurses Assn. have waged their own campaign for the movie, through screenings, by testifying in Sacramento or appearing on the steps of the Capitol. Moore last week screened it for the homeless in downtown Los Angeles.
What they are hoping is that groups like Move On and labor will cite the movie and its content and pressure the candidates into supporting universal health coverage.
"I think that it has already had a significant impact on the healthcare debate, which has forced the candidates and campaigns to engage on it," he says.
The movie "may not manifest itself instantaneously in all of these campaigns coming up with these bold new reforms, but I think what it does is it begins to fundamentally change the health care narrative. And it shows that whoever becomes the next president --- and I think it is more likely than not going to be a Democrat --- people want a lot bigger changes than we have historically talked about."
He sees the movie as being "the cinematic equivalent" of Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle," the 1906 novel credited with leading to new standards in food and packing industries.
The health care industry did take a detached approach to the movie --- if they commented at all --- but Lehane believes that has changed in recent weeks.
"They are now engaging directly trying to attack the film," he says. "It reflects the fact that I think they came to the realization that their hope that this film would be merely a blip on the screen, and would come and go with little impact, was a miscalculation their part."
While there were fears that a posting of a copy of the movie on the Internet would cut into box office, Lehane says that research calls last week to potential moviegoers showed that there was "no indication" that the piracy issue "really had a significant impact."