'Sicko': Get Well Soon

Maui Time | June 22, 2007
Michael Moore's knack for framing political and social issues in a surprisingly entertaining documentary format is a journalistic phenomenon that picks up where 60s-era activist filmmakers like Barbara Kopple (Harlan County USA) left off. Davis Guggenheim's An Inconvenient Truth might have been the first movie, documentary or otherwise, to effect noticeable social change, but Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 became the highest grossing doc in history, by far. Unlike in his previous films, Moore himself doesn't appear until roughly 40 minutes in, by which time he's set the parameters of his intercontinental comparative medical care window-shopping tour. Sicko isn't about the 50 million Americans living without health care, of which 18,000 will die needlessly this year, but rather about middle-class Americans living with medical coverage in a system that charges increasing prices for an ever-shortening list of services while poorer countries run circles around us. The point is summed up in a Star Wars-style scroll that lists conditions that will make you ineligible for health care under corporate health care pirates like Aetna or Cigna. The juxtaposition of George Lucas' famous sci-fi motif alongside the anti-humanitarian index provokes the kind of uncomfortable laughter that Moore is famous for extracting in the face of systemic failures.

Sicko bops along with cheesy pop music references, archive film and TV footage and brief history lessons about iconic figures such as Canada's Tommy Clement Douglas who introduced universal public Medicare in 1961. But Moore's idealistic motivations resound in his subject's personal stories, like the American carpenter who severed two fingers in a band-saw accident and had to choose between paying $60,000 to reattach his middle finger or $12,000 to have his ring finger put back together. Then there's the woman who drives across the border to Canada to get cervical cancer treatment that her HMO doesn't cover. Perhaps the most tragic story comes from a woman whose baby daughter died because she was refused emergency room care since her health care didn't cover it.

Switch to a blissful young London couple exiting a hospital where they had their baby at no cost, and with the knowledge that any and all medication will be available free of charge. "What do you mean it's free?" Their innocent smiles carry an extra glow of satisfaction. Theirs are trusting grins that Americans aren’t allowed to have, and Moore's dumbfounded reaction brings the inequality home with irony and hopeful humor. Imagine then the shock when Moore discovers that the London hospital's cashier doesn't take money, but rather dispenses it to patients for transportation to and from the hospital.

A graph reveals that the USA is ranked by the World Health Organization as 37th among countries for its health care. After the recently publicized story about a woman who perished due to neglect in a Los Angeles hospital emergency room, we may well have slipped below 38th place Slovenia. The timing couldn't be more explicit when you observe the way France (rated number one for its health care) takes responsibility for the well-being of its citizenry with doctors performing house-calls at no charge to their grateful patients. The French health system will even send caregivers to assist new mothers with such essential tasks as washing their laundry.

Michael Moore, the dramatist, pays off on the promised emotional climax of Sicko when he loads up a boat of sick Americans headed for Guantanamo Bay, where he hopes to cash in on some of the great free medical care being afforded to prisoners inside the notorious penal colony. After a blacked out rendering of their watery passage to Cuba, Moore calls out on a bullhorn to Guantanamo's gun towers to allow he and three 9/11 rescue workers to enter. It's a bold bit of transparent grandstanding that nevertheless makes the point that Moore was brave and dumb enough to risk being shot in order to give his movie momentum toward an inevitable visit to a Havana hospital. The 9/11 rescue workers are all in obviously bad health, unable to breathe properly and desperate for medical attention. Their stories of disenfranchisement from the country they bravely supported in its darkest hour is devastating, and when they meet with a group of Cuban firefighters for a ceremony honoring their efforts, you can't help but get choked up. How is it possible that these human examples of charitable ethics get more respect and better treatment in Cuba than they do in America? It's a question that has been quashed by the recent revelation that the Bush Administration is investigating the three "heroes" for having gone with Moore to Cuba for medical treatment that they could not get here.

After seeing archive footage of George Bush's low-approval-rating-rival Richard Nixon cutting deals to provide less health care for more money, you can sense the filmmaker's seething rage. But Michael Moore is an incurable optimist who believes in the ability of America's core values to come up to par and exceed other countries in the way our government takes care of its people. You've got to hand it to him -- Michael Moore is one of a kind.

Rated PG-13, 113 mins. (B+)


Maui Time

Maui Time Weekly provides insightful analysis and in depth reporting. We believe some issues are so important they require thoughtful consideration. We are not a “paper of record”—a daily journal of government meetings, ribbon-cuttings and corporate announcements. We decide what’s...
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