Sunday, August 17, 2008


July 5, 2007

Sicko. When I first saw the title of Michael Moore’s new movie on the state of health care at home and abroad, I thought: Uh-oh, he’s doing it again, squandering an opportunity to be a real player in a critical national issue by veering to his base of leftist absurdists and letting the right write him off as the Holy Fool. Why not call it something less flippant, more engaging, more Al Gore-like? Well, maybe not.

Moore likes allusions to the classics. His last work, Fahrenheit 9/11, was a faint thematic echo of Ray Bradbury’s dystopic book and film. Sicko may well be a distant accolade to Alfred Hitchcock. Perhaps he wants our subconscious to imagine the American health care "system" as a gargantuan Bates Motel, with the insurance companies as the bloodthirsty proprietors and the federal government as their embalmed mother.

However off-putting the title may be to some, the topic itself is so timely that the movie may draw the curious of all persuasions into the theaters just to see what Moore does with it - or to it.
They won’t be disappointed. Aesthetically, the film is great satire, pitting irony against irony at every turn. Politically, it is provocative in the best sense, challenging the country and its leaders to quit dancing around the question and face it head-on: Why not universal health care?

Moore began his project with a simple little inquiry on his website, If you’ve had any problems with your health insurance, contact me. Within weeks, e-mail responses ran to the tens of thousands. With his characteristic genius for culling through mountains of data to find the perfect illustrations, he selected witnesses with both telling cases and good camera presence, people like you and me with stories like yours and mine. Among them are a middle-aged couple forced into bankruptcy by life-threatening diseases, moving in with one of their children; a wiry, wry retiree working as a supermarket janitor to meet his drug expenses; a bearded, good-natured craftsman who cut off two of his finger-tips at his table saw and left them that way rather than pay the $75,000 his insurance company wouldn’t; a sampling of ailing 9/11 rescue volunteers excluded from the government’s paltry compensation plan; and the wide-spread news story of the deranged indigent woman dropped off at the door of the Union Rescue Mission in L.A. by Kaiser Permanente Hospital.

Unlike his previous films, Moore made no attempt to barge into the offices of the corporate big shots to gather embarrassing off-the-cuff comments, mostly because he didn’t have to: Insurance company employees were coming out of the woodwork by the hundreds with plenty of heart-rending tales of their own: There is, for example, the young customer service rep, tearfully describing her daily agony of knowing that her desperate applicants would be denied coverage because of preexisting conditions; and then the former adjustor burdened with guilt over the thousands of people whose claims he rejected - and received bonuses for.

Also unlike Moore’s other movies, this one actually shows a very bright side to the issue - unfortunately, he has to go across the border to find it, always with a clever segue. First he drops up to Canada, where a single mother from Detroit has established a common-law marriage of convenience with an acquaintance and drives up as needed for checkups and treatment for herself and her daughter. Then he flies off to England, where an American Beatles fan who broke his arm while attempting a somersault across Abbey Road (all documented on a friend’s home video) found to his amazement that the British National Health Service fixed him up immediately, for free. Then down to France, where young American expatriates relax with Moore in a lovely restaurant, telling stories of French health care complete with doctors who make house calls and nannies supplied by the government not only to do child-care but the laundry too - all without a bill.

And finally, across to Cuba, where Moore loads his dispirited 9/11 volunteers onto a motorboat, sails within bullhorn distance of the Guantanamo prison, and pleads for admittance, since Pentagon officials had proudly testified that the enemy combatants there receive top-notch medical care, including dentistry, eyeglasses, and routine annual colonoscopies, at full government expense. Failing that, he takes them to a Havana hospital, where they are welcomed effusively and are given all the MRI’s and dental work and medications denied them in the U.S.A.

The Cuban episode is a reversion to those stretch-the-truth shenanigans of his earlier works, quite obviously contrived and thus the weakest part of the film. It is also the cleverest.

After all this, Moore pops his simple question. He reminds us of all the public things that benefit us throughout our lives and over which there is no controversy: free public education, free public libraries, free public museums, free public fire and police protection. Why not, he asks, free public health care?

Of course, for all of the above, "free" is never really free, and Moore, the polemicist, sidesteps the problems of financing and cost-containment both abroad and at home. What he does do is to brilliantly illustrate the real meaning of "free" in these cases: The complete leveling of society, where rich and poor have equal access to those things essential to human well-being. Yes, taxes are higher in countries with universal health care, but most of their citizens agree that it’s a small price to pay for peace of mind.

As the population ages, there is more and more general sentiment in favor of universal health care. Nevertheless, it will take a popular revolt, led by visionary public officials, to break the back of big insurance and big pharmaceutical. This is not forthcoming - just review the half-hearted positions of the major precedential candidates on the issue, all of whom are beholden to the drug and insurance lobbies.

In the final scene, Michael Moore, that corpulent gadfly with the basset-hound eyes, lumbers up the steps of the U.S. Capitol with his bag of dirty laundry. If the French can do it, why can’t we?

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