By Steven Boone
"There's an element in the thinking of some people: 'We don't want people to be educated, healthy and confident, because they would get out of control.' The top 1% of the world's population own 80% of the world's wealth. It's incredible that people put up with it! But they're poor, they're demoralized and they're frightened—and therefore they think perhaps the safest thing to do is take orders and hope for the best."
--Tony Benn, Former Member of British Parliament, in Sicko--
Mr. Benn's wise words get to the Tootsie Roll center of Michael Moore's searching, hilarious, heartbroken American anthem, Sicko. Moore is out to reduce fear, restore morale and advocate for Americans to keep more of what little money they have in their pockets.
If this were the 1960's, he'd have to die or be humiliated into hiding. Hoover's FBI would have found some way to make him disappear from the national scene—maybe step out of the way of some wacko assassin or send an underage hooker up to Moore's hotel room. In 2007 McWorld, all it takes to neutralize Moore's message is to remind everybody that he's fat and disheveled. Or so it would seem after rocket attacks like Roger and Me, Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11 failed to inspire widespread rebellion in the land.
Sicko is different. This polemic about the corrupt nexus of health insurance companies, government and the pharmaceutical industry doesn't just expose the powerful as wanting us out of the way; it shows that they also want most of us dead. Moore portrays workaday Americans collectively like the dutiful wife who has a faint suspicion about her abusive husband, but no idea that he's planning to have her killed for the life insurance money. Marriage is trust. For an American working stiff like me, watching Sicko is like discovering the hitman's instructions in a desk drawer. The film gives us that insert shot of the note and the lingering reaction shot of the wife coming to grips. Hurts like hell.
Moore surveys a cross-section of sick Americans whose HMO's denied them treatment options that could have restored their health simply because said treatment wasn't covered under their policy. Sicko provides documentation and testimony to prove many of these companies manipulate the client approval/denial process to skew toward denial. Various people tell their horror stories of being turned away from emergency rooms, refused cancer treatment, charged outrageous prices for life-saving medicine. On a 1971 White House tape, we hear John Ehrlichman telling Richard Nixon that industrialist Henry J. Kaiser plans to offer newfangled "private enterprise" medical coverage in which "all the incentives are toward less medical care, because the less care they give them, the more money they make." Nixon blithely responds, "Not bad." Like a lot of other, more famous Nixon tapes, it's a slap-in-the-face sample of how the elite really feel about us. Moore and his research team dig out from under many such muddy rocks.
For the first half of the film, Moore forgoes his old trespass-and-ambush interviews with powerful assholes and simply narrates the stories of everyday people struggling with the HMO's. Cool, but that's not what makes this his best film yet. The genius move here is that, when he does enter the picture, Moore ambushes the heroes and the innocents of his story, not the villains. He harasses medical workers and patients in Canada, England and France, all countries with free national health care. Fully in character as the schlubby Midwestern bumbler, he demands that these people come clean about how terrible their health care systems are. The joke is in the wind-up: Before this fact-finding world tour, the film shares American propaganda films and TV news segments demonizing "socialized medicine" as the spectre of communism. These deliriously cinematic stretches of found footage, pop culture references and movie soundtracks (including one Willy Wonka ditty that I haven't yet stopped laughing over) show Moore keeping pace with the brilliant BBC documentarian Adam Curtis (The Power of Nightmares, The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom?).
So Moore is portraying only an average American whose mind might be clouded with all that disinformation. The doctors, nurses, pharmacists, American expatriates and natives in those foreign countries happily play along with him. When he learns how efficient and equitable these systems are, he has a fit. Pocket change for AIDS and Cancer medication? Free hospital stays? "It was enough to make me want to put down my Freedom Fries." His astonishment and culture shock may be rehearsed, but it comes from a sincere place, I'd say. It's as if Moore is re-enacting the disillusionment he suffered the first time he learned these facts.
Each of Moore's films has an ambitious agenda, but Sicko's mission is larger than even Fahrenheit 9/11's intention to derail the bogus War on Terror. If Moore gets enough Americans to get serious about a free universal health care program, this idiocracy might get back on the road to becoming the "educated, healthy and confident" citizenry Mr. Benn mourns. His elegant filmmaking here gives him a better shot than ever. Moore's new strategy suggests a lot of regrouping and reflection after Fahrenhieit 9/11 had more success at the box office than in reversing government policy. I sense that he's been groping for a way to really get people riled up, in a manner that no amount of government spin could undo. He seems to realize that making an ass out of a C.E.O. on camera may be fun, but it doesn't draft converts. Sicko is all about talking to the people, getting their stories out there, and connecting them with others, across all borders. The film's narrative line winds like an Indian trail because it follows Mike to the homes and workplaces of folks who wrote to him with HMO horror stories or national health care praise songs.
Moore conducts one last ambush stunt for old time's sake, taking ailing 9/11 rescue workers to Guantanamo Bay prison for the same thorough, government-administered health care that Al-Qaeda detainees are getting. The gag goes nowhere, but when Moore and the "9/11 heroes" move on to Cuba, Sicko gives us arguably the loveliest passage in any of his films. At a Cuban state hospital, the 9/11 workers get free medical tests that would have been too expensive in the U.S. You might have questions about the value of this episode as a Castro publicity stunt, but the gratitude of a woman who had to sell her house to make a dent in her medical bills is hard to shake. Later, when the 9/11 workers bond and exchange hugs with respectful Cuban firefighters, Moore makes his most beautiful and dangerous visual statement: Imagine there's no countries.
Steven Boone is a New York-based critic and filmmaker, a contributor to Vinyl is Heavy and the publisher of the pop culture blog Big Media Vandalism.