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Location: New York, New York, United States

Sunday, June 24, 2007


Michael Moore’s new movie, just like his earlier movies, is both exasperating and exhilarating. It gets a lot of individual things wrong, sometimes very wrong: logic, an organized and complete presentation of facts, the construction of an argument as opposed to throwing out a naïve polemic full of sentimental anecdotes and non sequiturs. And yet…and yet. Moore manages to get the big things remarkably right: Sicko is often uproariously funny, and it will also likely leave you in tears. It poses a simple question and demands an answer: Why is the U.S. the only Western democracy without universal healthcare? Why are we willing to let our fellow citizens suffer?

The film seems designed to make free-market partisans apoplectic while inspiring everyone else to chant alongside the righteous. Personally I’d prefer a documentary along the lines of PBS’s excellent Frontline series, which could lead you through the history of healthcare and the arguments for and against a single-payer system, and leave you feeling like a well-informed citizen ready to make a decision. But good as it is, Frontline won’t galvanize people, get them buzzed, the way Michael Moore can. He’s about to make a very big splash with this movie. He’ll succeed in getting people talking about an important issue, one which already promises to be a big part of next year’s presidential race.

Behind the opening credits we get a few stories about the uninsured, told quickly and with bemused, ironic twists. “But this movie is not about these people,” says Moore, as he proceeds to turn his attention to people who do have health insurance, yet were turned down for treatment, often with tragic results. He then offers a whole series of these anecdotes designed to appall you and make you cry. My heart actually sank a bit during the first half hour. While some of these stories are effective, they are overlong and rather clumsily told, and Moore’s voice takes on a wheedling “Isn’t this saaaad?” tone that made me want to fight back.

This section is followed by a brief and very incomplete history of health care in the United States. Moore scores cheap points by painting Nixon as the architect of Evil Managed Care. (This may remind you of the pointless conspiracy mongering about the Bushes and Saudi Arabia in Fahrenheit 9/11.) He’s a bit more successful in describing the efforts of the doctors’ and pharmaceutical lobbies to demonize “socialized medicine,” from the 1950s right through HillaryCare in 1993.

But it’s when Moore turns to the state-run healthcare systems of Canada, Britain, and France that the movie takes off. The contrasts between these systems and our own, and the pitying, disbelieving looks he gets from Canadians and Frenchmen when he describes the U.S. way of caring for the sick, give the movie the comic and dramatic engine it needs. Yes, you can argue that Moore deliberately ignores the fact that people in these countries have to wait for months to schedule surgery, or other disadvantages of a state-run system. But fairness, schmairness: Moore makes his point, smashingly well – these countries care, and we don’t.

After this, when we get more of the sad anecdotes of people falling through cracks of the greed-based American system, they take on new power – I resisted the tears earlier in the film, but they flowed freely from this point on. The great hour of polemical entertainment in the middle of Sicko overcomes the weaker first half hour. And it even carried me through the final half hour, a grandiose and borderline ridiculous trip to Cuba with a group of 9/11 rescue workers with health problems. When Moore stands in a boat and uses a bullhorn to demand that his companions be treated at the Guantanamo prison (where the terrorism-suspect detainees, unlike American citizens, get free universal healthcare), and failing that, takes the workers to an idyllic hospital in Cuba, where they are cared for by the Kindest Doctors in the World, the filmmaker may lose some of his audience again. This is almost too much. But the points he scores earlier help make this section of the film palatable to me.

Sicko will certainly irritate health insurance and pharmaceutical companies and their congressional allies, as well as those of us who are wonkish devotees of factual argument and logical persuasion. But why should Michael Moore care? He’s going to please a large audience with this movie. They’ll laugh, they’ll cry, and they may even write their congressman or write a check to John Edwards or some other universal healthcare advocate. Sicko may not be art, and it may not be “fair,” but it is a social phenomenon to be reckoned with – and for at least half of its two hours, it’s also a hell of a movie.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You shouldn't make comments about "facts" when your article is clearly not factual also. you state we(canadian) wait for months, this is truely not the case. sure if it's for something minor and not life threating sure there may be a wait. but for something that would be life threating, it's done asap.


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