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FILM REVIEW:

Michael Moore: Sicko (2007)

It's not about socialism: it's about humanity—and good sense—versus rapacious greed.

by Chris Knipp
Moore is a provocateur; he also has the ability to speak with the down-to-earth populist voice of the ordinary man of good sense.
Michael Moore's polemical documentary Sicko focuses on the heartless nature of the United States health system—it's inferior in that respect to those of Canada, England, France, even Cuba, he shows. Infant mortality is lower and the life span longer in those four countries and many others as well, compared to "the richest nation in the world." The problem with the American system is it's designed more to make money for the providers of care than to make itself available to everybody, as tax-based government systems are.

Sicko is no more cool and unbiased than any of Moore's other documentaries. It's what he means it to be: effective fact-based agitprop. He doesn't present downsides to the non-U.S. health care systems he looks at. But he still makes a strong case in showing in the first half what's wrong with the American system. A well-off Canadian Moore interviews says he's a conservative, but the national health service is an essential given. Can we ever get there? Moore is a provocateur; he also has the ability to speak with the down-to-earth populist voice of the ordinary man of good sense. His obesity may even help him with poor and working class people. Though it's a problem he's privately working on, it keeps him from looking like a sophisticated rich guy.

People tend to respond with scorn or loud applause to Moore's provocations and his methods. This time he's been accused of mindless absurdity for the way he keeps asking Canadian and then British patients and medical personnel what they pay or what they charge, when under a government system the answer is always "nothing." These questions didn't seem excessive to me. Moore's point is that Americans are so traumatized by a system based on HMO, insurance company, and drug corporation greed that they simply can't believe the luck of countries where universal health care is granted with no questions asked. There's got to be a catch—the kind of hidden clause, rule, or exception that he's shown the Kaisers, Aetnas, Cignas, Humanas, and the rest in America dream up to make more money for their shareholders and bloated CEO's and allow a baby to die of a fever and a father to die without a bone marrow transplant from a brother. (These two tragedies both involve black people.) Anyone who sees Sicko will remember the man in England who lost most of the fingers on one hand and got them put back on for free, versus the American given the choice after a saw accident: sew back the end of your middle finger, $60,000; of your ring finger, $12,000. Having to rely on his own savings, he went for the ring finger.

Sicko goes further afield. Not only England but also France comes across as paradise compared to the injustices of the USA. Moore films a gathering of Americans who live and work in France who speak up about how generous their work weeks, vacations, maternity leaves and medical care are over there. One woman at the all-Yank Paris dîner says she feels guilty about the good life she can live just by virtue of working in France when her parents back home have struggled so hard and yet still have less. The government even provides in-home nannies; and people (again in Paris presumably) can get an "S.O.S." doctor who makes free house calls in a shiny little white car; Moore goes around with him one night.

Moore doesn't go into detail about the disadvantages of other systems than the American one. In response to some usual criticisms of government medicine, he shows an English doctor who lives well working for the National Health and a Parisian family that is comfortable and happy paying French taxes. What Sicko's' facts and arguments put across to the viewer is that in a world of modern health care where America ranks somewhere around 37th (the 2000 WHO report's estimate), government-sponsored universal medical treatment isn't about democracy, socialism, or capitalism. It's more about humanity—and good sense—versus rapacious greed.

Sicko shows how volunteer post-9/11 World Trade Center helpers suffering from respiratory and PTSS problems have been rejected by the U.S. system and he takes them in a boat to Guantánamo after Congressional testimony stated the prisoners there get better treatment than some in the U.S. This is one of Moore's old practical joke gestures that leads into a visit to Cuba where the 9/11 volunteers actually get some free diagnoses and treatments, no questions asked. They enter a spectacular marble-lobbied hospital (the Cubans were obviously glad to show off the best of what they've got) and all they need to give is their names and dates of birth.

This film left me feeling not only depressed but vaguely afraid.
For some mainstream viewers, the Guantánamo trip or at least the Cuban one might be alienating. But then, there are the heroes of 9/11 accompanying Moore to validate the journey and say: See how bad US health care is? We have to go to Havana to get help! Medicare, it seems, may not save you with really serious health problems; even for minor ones, government payment of 80% of the bill isn't enough for poor people.

Moore generalizes that in France the government is afraid of the people, but in America the people are afraid of the government. Insofar as that's true, it helps explain why Europeans have social services Americans lack.
Having nothing more than that myself, this film left me feeling not only depressed but vaguely afraid. And Moore has inserted several key allusions to fear. In an interview the retired English socialist MP Tony Benn says a ruling class tends to control the poor through keeping them demoralized and scared. Later Moore himself generalizes that in France the government is afraid of the people, but in America the people are afraid of the government. Insofar as that's true, it helps explain why Europeans have social services Americans lack. Never having had medical insurance, I feel lucky to have had a lifetime of good health.

But with the technology and education and, yes, the health care system we have in the U.S.—were it more available to all—luck shouldn't be so necessary to have gotten through. The system we have isn't right.
©Chris Knipp 2007. Chris Knipp, of San Francisco, writes about movies, politics and art on his blogsite.


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This story was published on July 5, 2007.