Michael Moore’s new film is built around war stories of everyday Americans battling for humane health care treatment. After a pointless dig at George W. Bush, Moore explains that Sicko‘s subject isn’t the way our callous health care system affects people like me who don’t have any form of medical coverage but people who do and still fail to benefit from all the money they pump into the system in premiums, copays, and deductibles. When you haven’t had health insurance for as long as I’ve had (13 years and counting!), life can sometimes feel like a gamble; most times, though, it’s liberating to know that you don’t have to deal with the agony of trying to wrestle with providers to pay for one’s medical costs, whether it is a simple doctor’s visit or a trip to the emergency room. Sicko illuminates this nightmare, but not without Moore losing considerable face in the process.
Essentially, you’re screwed if you do and you’re screwed if you don’t, except perhaps for the shrinking number of people in this country lucky enough to have their health insurance paid for by their employers. Though the title of the film is an explicit reference to our health care system’s sad state of affairs, it may also apply to anyone unable to relate to the struggles of everyday Americans who have to pay for overpriced and ineffectual medical coverage. But let me be clear here: Understanding that Moore’s implicit position on health care in this country (essentially that it needs to be completely overhauled from the bottom up) is really the only correct one to have shouldn’t mean giving Moore’s slapdash filmmaking and questionable documentary tactics the free pass liberal critics like myself have given him in the past or continue to give him.
Moore is no shit smear like Ann Coulter, but it’s easy to see why people on the right regard him with such contempt. His films, like the reportage that tries to pass for legitimate journalism on FOX News, lack for balance. This is not to say that Moore is a liar or isn’t critical of his kind (he praises Hillary Clinton’s efforts to overhaul health care during her husband’s stint as President, then calls attention to how she accepted money from the health care industry while trying to build her political clout as a senator), but he is prone to showing us only one side of any given coin. Late in the film he praises Cuba’s health care system, but careful eyes may have noticed an early scene in which Moore states how the United States ranked 37—behind Costa Rica and ahead of Slovenia!—on the World Health Organization’s ranking of the world’s health systems. Number 39? Cuba, no less. Moore never accounts for this discrepancy, but the sneakiness of Sicko is such that he can very easily say that the point of his argument isn’t to herald the superiority of Cuba’s health care over ours but to suggest that its financial and moral burden is less. You could say that this is Moore’s real genius: knowing how to cover his ass.
The subject of Sicko is not new to Moore. Fans of TV Nation may remember a funny little segment he did in which he pit the United States against Canada and Cuba in the Healthcare Olympics. The essence of the rant is still the same, only now it’s two hours long. The filmmaker begins in the United States, chatting with people who’ve been reprehensibly treated by our health care system. Subjects include a white woman who lost her African-American husband because of the bone marrow transplant that may or may not have saved his life had it been paid for by their provider, a man asked by doctors to essentially choose between his index and ring finger after the tops of both digits were cut off by a power saw, and a woman whose infant died after doctors refused to help her because her provider insisted she take the child to a hospital that fell within her HMO plan. Their suffering breaks your heart, but what rattles one’s mind and consciousness are the confessions of people from inside the health care industry who freely admit to denying coverage and benefits to sick and needy individuals and couples.
By the time Moore showcases footage of a former medical reviewer at Humana testifying before Congress about how she was financially rewarded for saving the company money at the expense of people’s lives, one has to wonder why we’re not protesting on the streets at this very moment for universal health care. Moore stumbles on an answer through a conversation with a former member of Parliament, Tony Benn. Arriving in London to express insincere shock over yet another country’s free health care program (Moore is always acting as if he just found out how good every other person in the world has it), the filmmaker gets from Benn the interview he needs to elevate Sicko above a puff piece. Moore interestingly, though superficially, traces our government’s refusal to socialize health care back to the communist paranoia that surfaced in this country after WWII, at which point he features Benn’s argument that the United Kingdom, in the past, was able to successfully overhaul its health care institution out of unity and compassion and how, in the present, it maintains its sense of democracy by understanding that it is better to have a government that fears its people than a government that grips its people in fear.
Benn is no Howard Zinn, but his commentary is ingenious in its implicitness. The gist: We’re a capitalist state ill-equipped to give its people the health care the French and British enjoy for free because the people of this country have given their power over to political leaders with their hands in pockets that aren’t ours. Something that isn’t lost on Moore is the irony of our politicos rallying against the idea of health care on grounds that it evokes socialism while we continue to benefit from such “socialized things” as fire departments, police stations, libraries, public schools, and post offices. But while Moore doesn’t propose a solution to our health care problem (which, as a documentarian, shouldn’t be his pejorative anyway), he still has a very questionable habit of undervaluing the conditions that allow for free health care in other countries. Drooling over the benefits that people enjoy and the salaries doctors receive in Canada, France, and England, he glosses over the sacrifice that permits their luxury: The nature of Moore’s sarcasm is such that it’s unclear if he’s being serious when he states that the French are “drowning in taxes” or that the French get by just fine in spite of their government’s high taxation.
Which brings us back to Cuba. Much has been said about Moore’s sketchy trip to the island nation, but it’s important to clarify that the filmmaker’s experience of the country’s health care system isn’t the problem here (he amusingly debunks our government’s view of Cuba as “the most evil nation ever created”), only his trip to the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. Moore states that Homeland Security laws prevent him from revealing how he got to the island, but he gives the impression he did so by boat via a reprehensible little skit that has him asking the U.S. Coast Guard for directions to Guantanamo Bay. (Had he arrived in Cuba by boat, there obviously wouldn’t have been a need for him to commandeer a fishing boat in order to ask the medical team at the naval base to give his crew of ailing 9/11 volunteers the same treatment prisoners at the base enjoy for free; surprisingly, the filmmaker doesn’t argue that torture is the premium these prisoners pay for their health care.) Moore twists the truth and calls it satire, and though he might argue that he’s surreptitiously commenting on the lax security that allows people to travel from the U.S. to Cuba, he’s really only trivializing the struggle of anyone who’s had to negotiate the hellish 90-mile stretch of water between Cuba and Miami in order to enjoy the dispensations of American citizenship. Like Colin Farrell in Miami Vice coasting to Cuba to savor a mojito and Gong Li’s pootang, Moore grossly flaunts his own privilege.
Watching Moore argue a point makes you wonder how someone so smart can make such dumb choices. Sicko, like every other Michael Moore film before it, is a passionate but compromised mess, often relying on cute graphics and music to highlight its points, though we should be thankful for the lack of pandering cartoon anecdotes and that Moore’s physical presence in the film isn’t totally oppressive. The filmmaker lacks Keith Olbermann’s heady wit and Steven Colbert’s elaborate flair for subversion, and Sicko provides him with another opportunity to confuse snark with satire. But with Moore, it is almost necessary to take the good with the bad, and Sicko features some of the filmmaker’s more insightful and embarrassing moments, none more shaming than the filmmaker revealing how he sent Jim Kenefick of the Moorewatch website an anonymous check for $12,000 to pay for the medical bills incurred by the right-wing blogger and his sick wife. By revealing that he was Kenefick’s benefactor, thus defeating the purpose of his initial gesture, a sanctimonious Moore proves that he never intended to help Kenefick in the first place, only to boost his ego and shamelessly manufacture material for his film.
Only a monster would be unaffected by Sicko, but a smarter exposé of our country’s health care system might openly argue that the tenets on which our government is built would need to be completely reconfigured for us to attain the basic right of universal health care. But it’s probably unrealistic to expect Sicko to operate at the level of Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott’s The Corporation while still hoping to reach general audiences that could stand to benefit from Moore’s righteous indignation, and we should praise the filmmaker for giving his subjects a platform to voice their frustrations with our bankrupt health care institution, while also suggesting that drastic changes to the system may be impossible to implement as long as insurance companies continue to buy our country’s politicos with campaign contributions. In many ways Sicko is every bit as broken as the machine it takes on: We should be thankful that it airs out our nation’s dirty laundry, but we should also regret that someone as uncouth as Moore is doing the hanging.