Sicko (Michael Moore) – True to form, Michael Moore casts this mockumentary as an indictment of the institutions of our modern society. This time, he not only takes his usual shots at George Bush, he takes dead aim at the health insurance industry with a little less buckshot directed at the pharmaceutical companies, government health plans, hospitals, and Americans not inclined toward socialism. So, in reviewing the movie, let’s look at it as film, then as social commentary.
As a film, it is too long and there is too much of Moore himself. His style is unmistakable and, in that sense, he doesn’t disappoint his fans. In some ways, he’s like a David Mamet or Woody Allen only he’s not an artist but an editorialist. The pace is good until he gets bogged down in trying to cover ground beyond universal health care and strays into his case for the socialism of American society in areas like child care, housekeeping, and mandatory minimum vacation time. That makes the film 20-25 minutes longer than it has to be (it times out at nearly two hours). You find yourself wondering it he’ll ever get back to health care once he ventures to Canada, England and France (where he may end up more popular than Jerry Lewis, given the post card he paints to Parisians). Perhaps the biggest cinematic mistake he makes is to feature himself walking, talking, and cajoling while sounding incredulous about things he knows are true. Moore is many things; photogenic is not one of them. And in flashing his body and his ego on screen, he commits the horrible sin of detracting from his own compelling cast of real people in pain, angst and suffering. The people are the story and, while he is terribly and perhaps unfairly selective in choosing them, he unwittingly waters down his own story by featuring himself. The highlight of the film is actually the controversial visit to Cuba where 9/11 volunteers left ill by the residue at “ground zero” get care and hope from a country long vilified in our society. It’s better film than fact, but that (after all) is Moore’s style.
He certainly knows how to tell a story, and this is the heart of Moore’s talent. In some ways, this film reminds me of the even grander JFK, Oliver Stone’s conspiracy theory of the Kennedy assassination. In both, the directors choose the facts that suit their case, ignore the information that diminishes their point of view, and weave stories that seem both clear and compelling. It reminds me of listening to a Newt Gingrich speech. You listen to his facts, told convincingly and logically, and find yourself agreeing with every one of them. But then you realize that you’ve been lured by the style and the talented way the story is told, but not necessarily the conclusions. If you’re an editorial writer at the Des Moines Register, you have a limited bully pulpit for your views. If you’re George Will, Rush Limbaugh, Al Franken, or David Broder, you have a national newspaper or Sunday morning TV forum. But for Stone and Moore, their medium is cinema, and their budget is millions of dollars. At the end of the day, fewer people will see this movie than will listen to Rush tomorrow or watch Bill O’Reilley. That’s always true of film until they hit public TV.
Those inclined to Moore’s point of view, frustrated by the cost of health care (who isn’t?), or who have had one hassle-laden experience with the health care system, their insurer, or their health plan will love this movie. After all, we all love to have our own beliefs confirmed and reinforced, exposed and revealed. But Moore suffers a couple of famous and fatal ultra-liberal flaws. First, he just can’t help himself from using his forum to tell you everything he believes about almost everything. The film is absolutely at its best when he’s telling the stories of real people who have been wronged … or better yet, when he allows them to tell their stories. There is a legitimate and strong message here. If Moore weren’t so blatantly hell-bent on declaring a villain (or two or three), he would find a broader audience and maybe score some important social points with people beyond the left. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth was better but it still lost some of its steam and support by insisting on taking its shots as the Bush Administration (what did the Clinton/Gore administration do about global warning?).
The other liberal flaw is to purposely not acknowledge facts that dilute their case, even when those facts would not defeat their view but merely make it more nuanced. For those of you in Des Moines who read the Register or those who read the New York Times, you’ll recognize the disease. A case in point: Only once in the entire movie does Moore use the word “taxes.” Everyone who knows anything about health care in Canada, England or France knows that these countries tax their citizens at a much higher rate than in America, where the citizenry votes down virtually every tax increase proposed and where politicians avoid the “t” word like the plague. Moore could make the case that higher taxes would be well worth it if it delivered universal health care and greater health status like the systems in Canada and Europe he profiles. But no! He decides only to profile one well-to-do French couple who live affluently in their apartment despite the taxes they pay. Acknowledging that Americans would have to pay much higher taxes than they do today might diminish his argument somewhat but it would almost certainly not destroy it.
Isn’t it ironic that one-third of the uninsured in the country already qualifies for almost free government health care – the universal coverage provided for children, poor and elderly – but is not enrolled? Does Moore mention this? Does Moore attempt to explain why people with access to free care don’t avail themselves of it? The truth is these government programs – Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) — have failed 15 million people. And nary is a word spoken by Moore.
The truth is that not even the most callous, profit-mongering health insurance executive or conservative politician would recreate the health care system we have in America today. We would build a better, more inclusive, more effective, more evidence-based, and more accountable system while not sacrificing the elements of the system we, as Americans, cherish – free choice of provider, virtually immediate access to care and technology, and minimal government control over private matters.
Unlike An Inconvenient Truth, which ignited real awareness of global warming, Moore’s movie won’t take the discussion of universal care to another plane because he insisted on taking it too far. The politicians will amplify the issue, traipse out plan after plan without uttering the word taxes, and leave the American people frustrated, confused, and perplexed.
This movie is worth seeing as an example of a genre of movie that Moore has mastered. At the end of the day, it serves as a platform for propaganda that the director uses to offset the conservative juggernaut that controls channels like Fox News. Both only exist in a society where free speech is valued and citizens can spend their money is any way they please.