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One of his best and most frustrating efforts to date, Michael Moore's latest venture into inflammatory film making, the healthcare documentary Sicko, has been made available as a special-edition DVD set. Although from a commercial standpoint the film failed miserably as a follow-up to Fahrenheit 9/11 (bringing in just $68,969 in its first weekend, compared to the nearly $24 million of its predecessor), Sicko has positively confirmed the sneaking suspicion, held by both detractors and supporters, that while Moore's films are always topically relevant, exposing, and intelligent, he's also become something of a one-trick pony, increasingly centered on his own image as provocateur.
Another distinction between Moore's two most recent works is that while Fahrenheit 9/11 was released in quite possibly the most strategic manner ever, just months before the frenzied 2004 presidential decision between George Bush and John Kerry, and accompanied by a massive Moore-led voter drive/speaking tour, in comparison Sicko was just sort of dumped on the screen this summer, more than a year ahead of US national elections. Which is doubly odd, considering Michael Moore's largely political lens for movie making and the fact that the film's topic is part of the holy trifecta, along with "education" and "defense," of traditional American campaign topics.
Having already taken aim at the auto industry, corporatism, the American military-industrial complex, Republicans and a host of other social ills, Sicko turns Moore's attention toward the frightening state of the American healthcare industry, with his borderline snarky and sometimes-condescending voiceover, one of his tried and true tricks, providing color commentary throughout. Before tackling the huge and often featureless insurance and healthcare companies, the film begins with several specific horror stories from individuals who had replied to Moore's website post on the scope of his next movie. These stories are sad and disturbing: a man who, after an accident, had to choose which finger to have reattached based on cost (he couldn't afford both); an older couple with insurance who has to move back in with their grown children because of their exorbitant HMO costs; and a perturbing look at the matrix of denials, rejections, and cancellations of policies that make up the healthcare industry's cost-based mentality. Former insurance industry workers break down when talking about the practices of their former employers, speculating on the lives they may have cost by denying coverage. As outlined by the film, insurance carriers and hospitals and clinics in the United States are an industry, like any other, focused not on the well-being of society or even their own customers, but on making money hand over fist.
With at least a preliminary picture of the situation in the United States, Moore then departs for Canada, Great Britain, and France, bringing into sharp focus the failings of privatized medicine when placed alongside the functionality of universal coverage that exists in virtually every modern nation on the planet. In France, for example, Moore conducts a roundtable discussion with a group of American expatriates who, knowing the differences between the two systems first hand, express feelings of guilt over the degree to which the care afforded them by the French system eclipses the care their families in the United States receive. Closer to home, in Canada, Moore finds both American and Canadian citizens disgusted with the healthcare system in the United States; the Americans interviewed are amongst the thousands who cross into Canada each year to take advantage of the country's discounted medications and surgical procedures.
While the litany of ways the corporate model for medicine has failed Americans is well documented, Moore's footage of nations with a universal system is, as in his past films, shot through an extremely rosy lens. Nationalized healthcare might be undeniably more humane than the United States' privatized cluster-fuck, but every system - whether it be in Europe or Asia or the Americas, is fraught with its own problems. Moore, of course, prefers not to dwell on the complete reality of the world we inhabit, instead sculpting his portrayal of social medicine into a picture of flawlessness. And, surprisingly, he also revisits the 9/11 card - just a bit too much. At one point, when describing the British decision to socialize their healthcare system in the post-WWII era, Moore invokes the specter of 9/11 as a comparable motivator for America, and then proceeds to push the issue by recruiting 9/11 rescue workers into his campaign, eventually taking them and others to Cuba. While the absurdity of the costs and services for healthcare in the United States is often highlighted by the costs and services in Cuba (which the US has been painting as a decrepit communist wasteland for the past half-century), Moore's plan, to get free care from Cuba's renown doctors and hospitals, feels too gimmicky. These scenes, with affected background music and photography, play out in a dream-like atmosphere that takes Moore's style of docutainment to new levels of quaint simplification.
That said, few can argue with the injustice of America's general indifference to the ill-health of hundreds of 9/11 volunteers (because they were volunteers and not government employees, they are not covered by Federal insurance). And who can really disagree with the notion that such a cataclysmic event should spur a better healthcare plan for America? That's the problem though; it feels like Moore is the bizarro Rudy Giuliani, using September 11th as an indisputable device than as a rational motivation. Sicko also ends with a weird scenario that, although a nice illustration of his point, comes across as a tasteless self-congratulatory note: The operator of an anti-Moore website who had to shut down when he couldn't afford to pay for both the site and his wife's healthcare is buoyed by an anonymous check to cover his medical bills, which of course came from Moore. It is just a little weird (not to mention contrary to the point) to see Moore patting himself on the back while un-anonymizing his anonymous good deed. The point here doesn't seem in tune with the rest of the film; it feels more like an "I told you so" moment than part of a documentary.
But for all his faults, Michael Moore is unparalleled when it comes to making social commentary documentaries that are highly entertaining, astoundingly revealing, and generally commercially successful (although Sicko has to date managed only to only gross the $24 million that Fahrenheit 9/11 earned it its first two days, Moore is already at work on Fahrenheit 9/11½ - yes, a documentary sequal). His ego and drive ultimately serve him well, infuriating his critics as much as they satisfy his fans, and while Moore's infamy is his easiest fault to pick at, it's also what makes his films so effective and allows him the access that others might not have. The retail version of Sicko released this week is packed with bonus features, mostly consisting of segments that were left out of the original film, and may prove to be even more effective than its theatrical counterpart. The DVD release includes, in part, "This Country Beats France," a look at Norway's spectacular healthcare system, extended interviews with former British MP Tony Benn, and a look at another publicity coup, the film's premiere on downtown LA's skid row.
Taken as a whole, Sicko doesn't equal Michael Moore's best work as a documentar ian, but it is an extremely well-wrought piece of satire that tells some truly horrifying stories about one of America's most screwed up systems. While it doesn't feel like there's reason to hope for reform any time soon, at the very least Sicko could serve to raise the public's awareness about the way universal healthcare works. Lets just hope they remember come November 2008, when just the mere possibility of a socialized American healthcare system will once again hang in the balance of the presidential election. SEE ALSO: www.sicko-themovie.com
SEE ALSO: www.michaelmoore.com
SEE ALSO: www.nyc.gov/html/doh/wtc/html/home/home.shtml
Jonah Flicker writes, lives, drinks, eats, and consumes music in New York, via Los Angeles. He once received a fortune in a fortune cookie that stated the following: "Soon, a visitor shall delight you." He's still waiting.
See other articles by Jonah Flicker.
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