'Sicko': Health in a Handbasket

Salt Lake City Weekly | June 22, 2007
During the opening moments of Michael Moore's "what the hell is wrong with American health care" documentary Sicko, as the voice of the writer/director/gadfly began wafting through the theater speakers, I was finally able to come to terms with Moore's universe. In the sing-song, soothing tones one usually associates with a bedtime story, accompanied by pleasant string music, Moore related the stories of a few of the 50 million uninsured Americans forced to make horrible choices -- which severed finger to re-attach, or whether to self-suture after an accident. Where for years I'd grumbled about Moore's journalism of convenience, suddenly I realized I'd been coming at him all wrong. Here was documentary filmmaking not as journalistic enterprise, but as agit-prop liberal tone poem.

Since the film's premiere at the Cannes Film Festival -- and, since this is Michael Moore we're talking about, even before its premiere -- Sicko has come under fire by Moore's political opponents for all the usual reasons. Like Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11 before it, Sicko's facts and agendas would be held under a microscope, where they might not hold up to much scrutiny. This is also, as it turns out, desperately beside the point. Reasoned, fact-driven argument appears here almost incidentally. Moore wants to hit you not where you think, but where you feel -- and he'll do whatever it takes to accomplish that goal provided it will move you to act.

So Moore takes us on a disturbing journey through the brutal, heartless world of the American health care system, with an eye to getting us good and angry. He chastises lawmakers beholden to insurance-industry lobbyists for their refusal to tackle the issue in a meaningful way -- including Hillary Clinton for her about-face after prominently promoting nationalized health care in the 1990s. He shares the stories of former insurance industry employees whose penny-wise tactics cost people their lives. And he presents anecdote after anecdote after heart-rending anecdote of men and women whose lives have been shattered by refusals of coverage, or the inability to get coverage at all.

It's the Moore way, and at times it's almost laughably shameless. There isn't a tale that he doesn't end with a shot of someone bursting into tears, as though we somehow wouldn't otherwise understand the grief of a too-young widow or a bankrupt senior. When he presents the story of a woman whose 18-month-old daughter has died after being refused treatment at an out-of-network hospital, he films her not at home, or at the hospital, but in a public park, watching other children play on the swings. The brave decision of ex-claims examiner Linda Peeno to testify before Congress was somehow deemed not dramatic enough, and therefore required Barber's "Adagio for Strings" -- the music Willem Dafoe died to in Platoon -- to amp up the pathos.

Yet as clumsily as he goes about it, Moore does what he sets out to do: give a human face to the corporate decision-making that has made most Americans scared to death of what might happen to them in the event of a health-care crisis. He effectively undercuts the knee-jerk opposition to the boogeyman of "socialized medicine" by pointing out all the other things we have deemed important enough for the public welfare to subsidize with our tax dollars�fire departments, public schools, police. He allows the incredulous reactions of citizens in Canada, England and France do all the talking for how alone we are in our "take care of your own damn self" approach to medical need. It's not a position paper; it's a cry for help.

Moore does have a knack for letting his generalized frustrations get the better of him, and he doesn't do his argument any favors by letting his focus wander to the notion that perhaps we should all be getting free day care and free college educations as well. But he's such a savvy showman -- and less likely these days to play the aw-shucks Middle American for effect -- that he knows exactly how to sell his ideas. Sincere though he may be in getting 9/11 rescue workers treatment they can't otherwise afford, he also understands that the idea of cast-aside heroes is a great social button to push. After watching Sicko, you may not know a whole lot more detail about the health-care mess than you did before. You will, however, feel that something is very, very wrong�and maybe, as a baby step, that's enough.


*** (three out of four stars)


Directed by Michael Moore.

Rated PG-13.

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