Director : Michael Moore
Screenplay : Michael Moore
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2007
Despite its sketchy details, questionable omissions, and sometimes faulty logic--essentially, all the problems of any Michael Moore film--it is hard to deny that Moore's latest crusading documentary-polemic Sicko is an effective piece of work. In fact, for some it may be more effective than his previous documentaries because he has minimized one of the chief objects of his opponents' criticism: himself. In fact, Moore does not appear on-camera until nearly 40 minutes into film, and after that his screen presence is more sporadic than dominating. He does narrate the entire film, but he balances his frequently aggrandizing tones and sarcasm with a sense of overriding decency and optimism: Sicko is, at its heart, a plea for America to live up to the core values we claim to hold so dear.
After having taken on the auto industry, big business, the NRA, and the Bush Administration, Moore has now set his sights on the U.S. health insurance industry, the very epitome of the sacrifice of humanity at the altar of capitalism. The controversy here isn't the subject matter: Everyone knows the U.S. healthcare situation is jacked up. It's just a question of how to fix it, and Moore's solution--socialized medicine--isn't going to ring in everyone's ears with the same sweet tune, nor are his arguments for why we should implement it.
Moore wisely opens the film with individual stories, the kind of horror tales you hear about but can't quite believe: the uninsured worker who cuts off two of his fingers and is given the choice to reattach one for $60,000 or the other for $12,000; the woman who was denied coverage for cervical cancer treatment because the insurance company felt that, at 22, she was too young to have cancer; the elderly couple who has to cash in all of their retirement to pay for medical expenses and move in with their adult daughter despite being insured; and, saddest of all, the woman who lost her husband to cancer because the insurance company refused to pony up for potentially life-saving treatments because they were deemed “experimental.”
It's easy to see these are extreme examples, as is certainly the case of the woman who was forced to repay what her insurance company had provided for medical treatment because she had forgotten to mention on a health form that she once had a yeast infection. However, such health insurance horror stories are too numerous to ignore, as was evidenced when Moore put out a call on his web site and got 25,000 responses. Even more telling were the responses he got from people who worked for health insurance companies: They weren't writing to defend their profession, but rather to confess how much they loathed having to trade human wellbeing for the bottom line.
A significant portion of the film is dedicated to Moore's examination of other countries' nationalized health care systems, which, contrary to what many U.S. politicians argue, are not massive failures characterized by subpar medical care and yearlong waits for procedures. Rather, in showing how healthcare works in Canada, England, and France, Moore shows quite convincingly that nationalized healthcare is not only possible, but also efficient and productive. Moore's view of these healthcare systems is illustrated best by the shocked expressions and outbursts of laughing that follow when he asks various patients waiting at hospitals what their copay is or how much they will owe for their procedures.
However, Moore does risk overplaying his hand here, acting as audience surrogate by portraying the American rube gawking in wonderment at the glories of foreign healthcare. For those who haven't looked into the issue much, it will seem like medical heaven, with first-rate doctors and hospitals providing excellent care whenever you need it for free. Moore briefly addresses the taxes needed to pay for all it by showing a comfortably wealthy French couple, and he also contests the idea that foreign doctors are underpaid by their governments by showing a British doctor who drives an Audi and has a four-bedroom $1 million townhouse in London. Unfortunately, these are all anecdotal evidence that cannot be contested on their own, but also cannot be used to prove larger trends. It's deeply effective in the short term, but not quite so much when you start thinking about it later.
Of course, it's not a Michael Moore film without at least a stunt or two, and this is where Sicko plays it the riskiest and really feeds into his detractors' hands. Most everyone has by now heard of Moore's little jaunt to Cuba with a boatload of sick 9/11 rescue workers who were being denied coverage by their health insurers, and while Moore surely meant it to play as both a way to honor such brave men and women and debunk many of our fears about Cuba, it mostly works as cheap grandstanding. As Moore stands in his boat with a bullhorn in front of the American military base at Guantanamo Bay, asking that they provide the same health care for the 9/11 workers that they do for Al-Qaeda detainees, you want to grab him by the lapels and shake him. Plus, it's just a little too easy to imagine that the Cubans are more than ready to make the U.S. look bad, hence the amazing number of doctors who immediately attend to the 9/11 workers (not to mention the fact that careful viewing of the film reveals that, in a graphic of the World Health Organization's ranking of national healthcare systems, Cuba ranks 39th, two places behind the United States, which outright contradicts the point Moore is attempting to make).
Moore also stumbles badly in the final moments when he tacks on an unnecessary coda about how he anonymously donated $12,000 to pay the medical bills of the wife of one of his main adversaries, Jim Kenefick, founder of moorewatch.com. By drawing attention to this fact, not only does he undermine any claims to anonymous benevolence, but he once again detracts from his own argument by focusing the spotlight on himself.
Nevertheless, even with these weaknesses, Sicko is, like Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), Bowling for Columbine (2002), and all his other polemics, a compelling piece of work. You don't have to agree with Moore's viewpoint or even his tactics to recognize that he is asking important questions and digging into issues in a way that could conceivably make a real difference in the world.
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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