Michael Moore’s knack for framing political and social issues in a surprisingly entertaining documentary format is a journalistic phenomenon that picks up where 1960’s 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 his previous films, Moore 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.
A graph reveals that the U.S. 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 free house calls to their grateful patients.
Moore, the dramatist, pays off on the promised emotional climax of SiCKO when he takes some sick 9/11 rescue workers to 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. 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.
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 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 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. MTW