By Brian Rentschler
Short version: Calling Michael Moore a documentary filmmaker is, at best, a stretch. However, his latest film is entertaining, enjoyable and yes, even a little balanced at times. Overall, it's a much better film than Fahrenheit 9/11.
Considering how underwhelming I found Michael Moore's last movie, Fahrenheit 9/11, I was skeptical about his newest entry, Sicko. Make no mistake, Sicko deserves to be called a documentary just as much as Hostel and Saw deserve to be called family movies. However, Sicko turned out to be better than I thought. Unlike Fahrenheit, it has a more coherent point to make, and it (mostly) sticks to that point. As with Moore's other films, there is a noticeable dearth of research, facts and quoted sources that I would normally expect from a true documentary film. Ultimately, what this film sets out to do is entertain, and in that sense, it does its job quite well.
Before the movie even started, there were two things in particular that struck me about this film. First, the theater was quite crowded, more so than I had previously seen in that theater. Second, the overwhelming majority of the audience consisted of senior citizens. There were a few people around my age in there as well, but that particular showing belonged to the elderly. I did not find that surprising at all, since the older members of our society are the ones who have the most to lose or gain, depending on if/when we choose to revamp the way we do health care in America.
The film starts off by giving us a couple of examples of what can happen when an American has a medical catastrophe and has no health insurance. He quickly clarifies, however, that the movie is not about the 50 million Americans who have no health insurance. He stresses that the movie is actually about the 250 million Americans who are covered under some sort of health insurance plan. He strays from that main focus a few times throughout the movie, but for the most part, he stays on point. He has almost countless examples to choose from, and he chooses some poignant ones:
- Rejected claims for expenses that the patient thought were covered
- Insurance companies changing their minds about covering a particular expense, and sending out a collector to recover the previously paid out funds
- Outright denial of insurance coverage for patients who have pre-existing conditions
- Refusal of companies and/or the government to insure their workers against hazards while on the job (including several 9/11 cleanup crew members)
- Seriously sick patients being almost literally dumped on the street because they can't pay their medical bills
So far, so good. Moore has established that we have a problem with the way we do health care in America, and the film helps me stay with him on that point. So of course, what logically follows next in a film that presents a problem is to see what the proposed solution is. You don't always see a proposed solution in every film like this, but Moore is happy to offer one, and he puts his words into action. Remember those 9/11 cleanup crew members I mentioned earlier? They were denied medical coverage by the government because they volunteered their services, so they technically weren't on the payroll at the time. What does Moore recommend as a solution for them? He takes them to Cuba. (I assure you, I am not making this up.) Using the discretion and subtlety for which he is so well-known, he sails them out to Guantanamo Bay with a megaphone in hand (part of a running joke about how Al Qaeda prisoners in Gitmo supposedly get better medical care than U.S. citizens), then they all end up on mainland Cuba, where the workers seek the medical care they couldn't get in America.
Indeed, a significant percentage of the film is spent on examples of how people in other countries such as Canada, England, France and even Cuba enjoy a higher quality of life and a happier existence, which they owe in large part to their respective government-sponsored universal health care systems. He goes to great lengths to illustrate how major medical procedures that could send the average American into financial disaster are completely covered by the government in these other countries. He quotes many statistics about how people in countries with universal health care systems are healthier and live longer than the average American. (He does not cite any sources for most of those stats, however... bah!) He even goes out of his way to emphasize that in France, there is a government-subsidized nanny who will come over to your house twice a week to take care of your kids, cook your meals, even do your laundry. That's what seems to push Moore over the edge because in the very last scene in the movie, he's walking up the steps of the Capitol building, full laundry basket in hand.
Although I enjoyed the movie enough to give it a mildly positive rating, there were several things that prevented me from giving it a higher rating. First, I wanted to see more of a research tone to the statistics presented in the movie. For example, in An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore did a decent job of justifying why he said what he did. Moore, on the other hand, generally expects you to take what he says at face value. To his credit, Moore goes beyond the patients themselves and asks the hospitals a few basic questions about finances. What he does not do is go the extra step and look into whether the government that is subsidizing that universal health care can afford it. You think America is the only country whose federal, state and local government agencies are bleeding red ink? Here are just a few examples of why Moore's somewhat utopian characterizations of other countries' health care didn't quite resonate with me:
- The French government is hurting financially because of its universal health care system.
- Moore's film claims that people in France can get just about any medical treatment they want for no money out of pocket. The reality is not quite that simple.
- Moore's film claims that the purported waiting periods in Canadian medical facilities are greatly exaggerated. Does a four-month average waiting period sound exaggerated to you?
I could go on, but I'll stop there. My main purpose for citing those examples is to illustrate that a little research would have added a tremendous air of credibility to Moore's film. In Sicko, as with Fahrenheit 9/11, there were plenty of actual facts available to back up what he was trying to say; it was not necessary for him to introduce mistaken and/or misinterpreted statements into the film to make his point.
Bottom line, I agree with Moore's central thesis. The health care system in America is in trouble, and something needs to change. Where I do not agree with him is in his assertion that a universal health care system, controlled and subsidized by the government, is the right answer. Just because someone else pays for our health care doesn't mean it's free. Costs won't go down just because the government takes over; if history is an indicator, they'll actually go up. With our national debt currently at $8.8 TRILLION and counting, can we afford to take on a system that's likely to have us bleeding red ink over the long-term? Medicare and Social Security are government-run programs; how are they doing financially? There's no such thing as a free lunch, nor is there free health care. Someone has to pay, and historically, the private sector almost always does a better job than the government. I certainly don't claim to have all the answers, but may I suggest that we start by doing something about the fact that insurance companies are nearly unregulated, even though the medical industry is heavily regulated? (I was surprised that Moore didn't focus on that particular issue more than he did in the film.)
The final problem I had with the film that I want to mention is Moore's continued insistence that the government needs to step up and take care of its citizens. In the movie's final scene, he wants the government to do his laundry. I understand that his statement was intended to be at least partially tongue-in-cheek, but at least for me, it limited the film's effectiveness. I don't want to see our society become dependent on the government for things we can easily do ourselves. The reason I hardly ever vote for Democratic candidates is because I have never believed that bigger government is better government. I'm not trying to say that Republicans always get it right, but look at all the Democratic presidential candidates tripping over each other trying to come up with the most grandiose plan for universal health care. To my knowledge, only John Edwards has been willing to admit that such a plan would require massive tax increases.
I took away two major statements from the film. The first was, "Something needs to change in the American health care system." The second was, "Everyone is entitled to universal health care, completely subsidized by the government." I agree with the first statement 100 percent, but as for the second statement... Which government are you talking about, Moore? The same one that runs Medicare and Social Security? The same one that refused to provide health care to those 9/11 workers you took to Cuba? Sorry, but I'm not feeling any warm fuzzies about that idea.
The more I pick this movie apart, the more I'm tempted to lower my rating because of its logical (and sometimes factual) flaws. However, I stand by my mildly positive rating because the film is effective at doing what it sets out to do — highlight a serious (albeit obvious) problem in an entertaining way. Ultimately, despite what the movie would have you believe, there are no easy answers to the health care issue, but I have to give Sicko credit for doing something very important: getting people to talk about it. That's the critical first step.
For me, the most poignant statement in the film was from former British politician Tony Benn: "If you can find money to kill people, you can find money to help people."