2007; 113 minutes, documentary, directed by Michael Moore, US
Christopher Hitchens once said of Michael Moore, "He prefers leaden sarcasm to irony and, indeed, may not appreciate the distinction." I’d agree with the first part and maybe even with the second. And while we’re on the subject I may as well say that Moore’s showboating, his paternalistic and scolding tone, his "hero of the common man" persona all make me queasy. That he seems unable to resist the temptation of the sentimental and the urge to reduce nearly every situation to farce is grating too. Oh, and one more thing: I take it for granted that his facts need to be double-checked.
How sad then that Moore is one of the few documentary film makers with mass appeal and box-office viability to train his camera on working-class people who have collided with America’s corporate juggernaut. In Sicko it’s people who, despite having medical insurance, were unable to get care. There’s the woman who at twenty-two developed cervical cancer and was denied treatment by her insurance provider because she was “too young to have cervical cancer.” Another, an accident victim, was told that after being knocked out in a car crash her ambulance ride wouldn’t be covered because she didn’t get pre-approval for it.
As always, Moore relies heavily on personal testimony and people are taken at their word. Given that we’ve got an unchecked, for-profit healthcare system that is unique in the industrialized world I don’t really think the burden of proof is entirely on the people profiled in Sicko, and I think most of us have heard enough medical horror stories from sources we trust to make their stories ring true. Yet, this points to a problem I have with Moore and also to why I found it so difficult to write about Sicko. Like all Moore’s films much of it feels true and I think a documentary should aspire to a higher level of credibility. It often feels like Moore is a satirist trapped in the role of documentarian, said another way he’s a lazy film maker. No doubt, the extraordinary callousness and inefficiency of our healthcare system is rich fodder for anyone with an eye for satire and it’s important (and horrifying) to know that the world of American healthcare is sort of like what Through the Looking-Glass would be if Kafka had penned it. One man relates his story of severing two fingertips with a table saw and being told at the hospital that they could replace the ring finger for $12,000 or the middle for $64,000. Viva choice. The problem is that these are real people and real situations, and to treat them as satire is at the very least to miss an opportunity. It would be a lot of work to to look closely at the predatory system that they're ensnared in and offer a serious discussion of the alternatives. Instead Moore says "isn't this nuts?," offers a thumbnail history of HMOs in the US and then hits the road for what seems to be the medical paradise of other countries.
Probably the most commented-on element of the film, Moore’s trip to Cuba with US healthcare refugees in tow, is vintage Moore. When he learns of the government claim that detainees at Guantamo Bay are given quality healthcare he sets sail with three boatloads of ailing Americans who have been unable to get treatment and from the prow of the boat announces to the guard tower that he has Americans in need of care. It’s emblematic of Moore’s style and it was a scene that had me rooting for him at the same time I was cringing. My reaction speaks to the ambivalence I have about Moore. I’m glad that there’s a bankable filmmaker who’s willing to show the effects of corporations run amok on ordinary people and I believe Moore is genuinely well intentioned. But he's too vulnerable to the demands of his ego and his films suffer under the weight of his outsize personality.
Moore has been criticized for overstating the benefits of the healthcare systems in Canada, Cuba, France, and Britain and his sunny portrayal of beneficent doctors tending trusting patients within infrastructures that run without a glitch made me wonder what the downsides are. I'm willing to believe that the healthcare systems of these countries are way more humane and efficient than ours and I'm willing to believe that we're subject to much disinformation about "socialized medicine." I'm not, however, willing to believe that medical Xanadu exists anywhere. And here I come to another difficulty in writing about a Michael Moore movie: it's easy to focus so much on Moore’s glaring faults and the deficits in his movies that the larger issue gets lost. In this case, it's that we live in the only industrialized country whose healthcare system doesn’t start from the assumption that everyone is entitled to care. I wish someone else could sell out theaters by saying that, but for now we’ll have to settle for what we’ve got.