The one thing that I wish for SiCKO is that Michael Moore has learned to keep his goddamn mouth shut and let his movie do the talking. Because, honest to God, the only people that could sincerely hate SiCKO are the people that don’t see it. In addition to being an experience that inspires Kubrickian levels of eye-opening, in this movie the smarmy has been tempered, the sanctimonious bullshit is largely absent, and the sensationalism has been dulled. In their place is a level of poignancy unseen since Roger and Me. I don’t think it’s overstating to say that SiCKO is not only Michael Moore’s best documentary; in fact, it may be the most important piece of social commentary you’ll ever see in a movie theater. And unlike Fahrenheit 9/11 or Bowling for Columbine before it, there’s hardly anything divisive about SiCKO, except for those who can’t stand Moore on principle alone, or those so greedy and selfish that they literally don’t give a shit about their fellow man. Hell, the only people on the other side of the issue anymore, it seems, are insurance and drug companies, and those who profit from them, including an assortment of politicians, Republicans and Democrats alike — the very demons, in all likelihood, who will demonize Moore and this film.
Granted, the case that Moore makes for universal health care isn’t entirely critic-proof — once again, he largely eschews statistical evidence in favor of the more cinematically powerful anecdotal evidence. Nor does he, when presenting a case for the health care systems in Great Britain, Canada, and France, adequately address the many concerns that citizens in those countries have with their own systems. But it’s only a two-hour movie, and what Moore does during those two hours is astonishing: He paints a damning picture of the American health system, explaining why it harms not only the uninsured, but also the insured who get systematically screwed by their HMOs, while presenting an equally convincing case for that evil, evil socialized medicine (and for you knee-jerk Ron Paul libertarians quick to jump on universal health care as the beginning of the slippery slope toward Communism, Moore offers this reminder: Our police and fire departments, our post offices, and our schools are all owned and operated by the federal government … so why the hell not our hospitals?)
You could argue, too, that Moore engages in the same brand of fear-mongering that his opponents rely on — bringing our attention to a problem some of us didn’t know existed, at least to the extent that it does. But the difference between Moore’s fear mongering and, say, the Bush administration’s, is that he’s raising concerns about an actual ongoing problem, instead of the threat of one. Yes — we certainly could be attacked by terrorists at any time, and yes, another 9/11-level attack could occur any second (as we are so often reminded), killing another 3,000 innocent citizens. But, the health care system is broken now, and 18,000 people die each year because of inadequate or no health insurance. And those people are just as innocent as those who fall victim to terrorist attacks.
Still, it’s probably not my place to get all polemical here. As a critic, I’m tasked with addressing the merits of Moore’s film rather than unpacking his arguments, so I’ll say this about SiCKO: It is thought-provoking, entertaining, sometimes tearjerky, and consistently chilling. He opens the movie in typical Moore fashion, with a profile of one of the 50 million folks without health coverage — a man who lost two fingers and had to choose which to reattach based upon his budget —and then warns us that, though this man’s story highlights a huge problem, this movie is not about people like him. It’s about people who are insured, those at the mercy of the for-profit industry tasked with ensuring our health and well being. Through a series of accounts, Moore documents these companies’ refusal to cover certain procedures because the illnesses were not “life threatening” (two women with breast cancer and brain cancer — both patients died); the lengths it goes to deny coverage (a woman in a head-on collision whose ambulance ride wasn’t covered because she didn’t get it “preapproved” while she was unconscious); folks who couldn’t get insurance because they were deemed too fat (5’1”, 175 lbs) or too thin (6’0”, 130 lbs); and a bone-marrow transplant deemed too “experimental” (the man died). Most damning of all, Moore talks to current and former claims adjusters who reveal the contemptible tactics of the industry, including bonuses to doctors who deny coverage and denials of coverage to patients for refusing to reveal such life-threatening preexisting conditions as a long-resolved yeast infection.
After exploring the origins of HMOs (Nixon!) and thoroughly trashing the American health system, Moore takes us on a brief tour of the systems in Canada, England, and France, deftly demonstrating why the United States is currently ranked 37th in the world in health care, “just slightly ahead of Slovenia.” Granted, Moore probably cherry-picked people to interview with uncommonly good experiences, but he does do a reasonable job of refuting some of the typical concerns that many in America have raised about universal health coverage (higher taxes, poorer care, longer lines, impoverished doctors, etc.). He explores health coverage in other countries as a tourist with no prior knowledge might, expressing surprise, disappointment, bewilderment, and occasionally some of that trademark Moore sarcasm.
But, by and large, Moore remains — thankfully — a background figure in his own film. Until the final scenes, in which he takes ill 9/11 rescue workers abandoned by the American health care system to Cuba, Moore keeps his ass out of the camera’s view. He seems to have learned from the mistakes of his past two documentaries; he’s most effective when he presents his story matter-of-factly, allowing the power of the personal anecdotes to do most of the work from him (as he did in Roger and Me), rather than leave a trail of greasy self-indulgence all over the film print. Even when he does appear, he doesn’t try to rile anyone up. He doesn’t confront any CEOs or stick a microphone in the face of unwilling interviewees. He’s laid back, folksy, and seems genuinely concerned with the problems America faces.
More importantly, he’s not trying to be the alienating figure he was four years ago in Fahrenheit 9/11 — ultimately, a whipping boy for the conservative movement, a man who riled up Republicans more than he did liberals. Here, he doesn’t want to be the poster boy for the ails of the American health care system. He seems content to show us what’s wrong with what we’re doing, and to provide some examples of successful systems in other countries, not to taunt U.S. policy makers, but to demonstrate how we can fix our own system. It’s an undeniably powerful documentary with an equally powerful point to make. Its effectiveness, however, depends on whether he allows the positive word of mouth deliver it or if he blocks it with his big gaping pie-hole of divisiveness. Given the power and urgency of his underlying message, I sincerely hope he can keep it together.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.
SiCKO / Dustin Rowles
Film | June 28, 2007 | Comments ()