Sicko (United States, 2007)
For his fifth full-length "documentary," Michael Moore turns his attention to another hot-button issue: health care in the United States. The points he makes - that the health care system is badly broken and other countries accomplish what we have trouble doing - aren't revolutionary, but they are presented in a compelling manner. For those living in the United States, watching Sicko isn't an uplifting experience. Moore, as has been adequately reported over the years, isn't a hard-hitting journalist or a documentarian in the traditional sense of the job description. He's more of a rabble rouser and a button pusher. His ego often gets in the way of his making a point (as happens on several occasions during Sicko), but he knows how to edit and spin in such a way that even the driest of topics can become compulsively watchable. As a documentary, this movie has the same problems as all of those in Moore's oeuvre; as a polemic or a visual op-ed piece, it's an effective piece of filmmaking.
Moore's thesis and approach in Sicko is straightforward, and the film hangs together a lot better than his previous rant, Fahrenheit 9/11, which lacked focus. Moore starts by cherry-picking horror stories from the American health care system in which people die because they are denied treatment or referrals, lose fingers because they can't pay the hospital to have them re-attached after an accident, and are prematurely discharged from hospitals because of cost issues. While the cases Moore documents are extremes, anyone who has battled an HMO or sat in an emergency room understands that when it comes to medical coverage in the United States, greed trumps need.
Having illustrated some of the most glaring failings of the U.S. system, Moore takes his viewers to four other countries where the concept of "universal health care" has changed the way people view disease and disability: Canada, England, France, and Cuba. Moore arguably goes overboard in praising the systems of these countries, but his central question is valid: if they can do it, why can't we? Curiously, it's a question he doesn't pursue with much vigor, perhaps because the answer is obvious. He touches on the political power of drug companies and insurance companies, but is surprisingly restrained in attacking them.
Moore weakens his case by occasionally lobbing politically motivated smoke bombs into the proceedings. Health care isn't a political issue, since many Republicans and Democrats have been bought and paid for by corporations who have a vested interest in the status quo. The anti-Bush/pro-Clinton scenes make Moore appear petty and distract from the importance of his overall message. But that's Moore - his stated goal with Fahrenheit 9/11 was to present an expose of the Bush administration that would force the President out of office after one term. Moore's ego also looms larger here than in any of his previous films. Toward the end of Sicko, he recounts a tale of his "generosity" (sending an anonymous check of $12,000 to the webmaster of an anti-Moore site who couldn't pay for his wife's health care). What could have been a kind gesture is turned into an example of self-aggrandizement by its inclusion here.
There is a sequence in Sicko in which Moore takes a group of ill 9/11 volunteers to Cuba to receive the health care they have been denied in the United States. The government is allegedly pursuing possible charges against Moore for breaking a trade embargo with the communist country; however, considering the context, any such action is frivolous and treading close to violating Moore's First Amendment rights. On the other hand, news stories about this are bringing Sicko a lot of publicity, making one wonder whether a master spin doctor like Moore might be using this to his advantage.
In some ways, Moore is his own worst enemy. In the past, he has twisted facts and distorted statistics to such an egregious degree that supposedly hard data in Sicko deserve to be placed under the microscope of skepticism until they are proven one way or the other. For the most part, however, Sicko stays away from figures and numbers and concentrates on first-person accounts, a few of which are heart-wrenching. That's not to say that Moore always plays fair, but that has never been part of his agenda.
Whether Moore is preaching to the converted and whether there are flaws in his sermon doesn't detract from the import of the message. As is his trademark, he does what he can to impart a degree of entertainment to a serious subject. The movie is well put together, if a little long (the sequences in Canada, England, and France could be shortened), but there's a good mix of humor and pathos. Sicko is flawed but effective. Most importantly, regardless of its overall veracity, it provides an opportunity for open and frank dialogue about an issue that has been politicized and ignored for far too long in this country. Whatever anyone's feelings may be about Michael Moore, it's hard to disagree with his argument that health care in the United States is broken and needs to be fixed.
Sicko (United States, 2007)
Cast: Michael Moore
Screenplay: Michael Moore
Cinematography: Christoph Vitt
U.S. Distributor: The Weinstein Company