the film snob

A cyberspace journal about my experiences as an NYU film school grad student, reviews of current and classic films, film and TV news, and the rants and raves of an admitted (and unapologetic) film snob.

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Esse Quam Videri -- To be, rather than to appear

Saturday, June 23, 2007


This is an abridged version of a review I wrote for Christianity Today Movies. To read the rest of this review, click here.

Let’s face it, we all come to Michael Moore’s films with our own established preconceptions just as Moore arrives onscreen with his rather renowned baggage. For those people who loathe his methods and politics, he is, as the great film critic Pauline Kael said, a peddler in “gonzo demagoguery.” For those who celebrate his zealousness and guerilla tactics, he is a prophet, calling forth repentance in the public square.

Moore began preparing for Sicko almost ten years ago. Inspired by a segment in his TV show, The Awful Truth, Moore got the idea to make a film tackling the absurdities of the American healthcare system. Then came the Columbine shootings. And the Iraq War. After the dust settled from Fahrenheit 911— the highest grossing documentary in film history — Moore found himself returning to his shelved idea. After all, healthcare affects more Americans than either gun violence or terrorism.

There are no congressional ambushes or CEO confrontational stunts in Sicko. Moore seems to be channeling the great social critics of the past, like Mark Twain, stating his argument and framing his ideology clearer than ever before. Sicko is less angry and antagonistic than his former films, incorporating a surprising amount of joviality for a subject as painful as this. You can say things in comedy that you can’t say in drama. Moore has somehow managed to utilize both in a way that will make you laugh yourself sick. This is his most accessible and enjoyable film, and he might just win some fans with this one.

While many would assume Moore is out to slay the dragon of America’s nearly 50 million uninsured citizens, he’s not. It’s about the millions of others who dutifully pay into their insurance each and every month and when it comes time to draw upon that reserve, find themselves ensnarled in bureaucratic red tape. America currently ranks No. 38 in global health care — just above Slovenia. Touting the best medical care known to man, Americans are far from the healthiest people on the planet, nor do we have the longest life expectancies. There are third world countries with lower infant mortality rates than the United States.

Moore populates his film with profiles of ordinary Americans whose lives, in one way or another, have been forever altered by collisions with the healthcare system. It is through their stories and tears that the oft times overwhelming colossus of healthcare is distilled into very real, very personal vignettes.

There is the man who cut off two of his fingers and was told he had only enough money to choose one to be reattached. There is the woman who was charged for an unapproved ambulance ride after she was rescued unconscious from the scene of a car crash. There is the debt-ridden couple who now live in their daughter’s basement because their insurance refuses to cover their cancer and heart treatments. There is the mother who was turned away from the hospital because she didn’t have the right insurance. There are the disowned 911 rescue workers now suffering debilitating respiratory infections as a direct result of their heroic efforts at Ground Zero. There is the dazed patient dumped by her hospital at a homeless shelter because her insurance had run out.

Sicko continues Moore’s tradition of assailing power structures, but unlike his last films, there is no singular entity for his incisive scalpel, but rather a triumvirate composed of HMOs, pharmaceutical companies and hospital bureaucracy. Sicko traces the origins of HMOs back to Nixon’s White House with some jaw-dropping revelations, and insists that private health insurance companies are driven by pure greed. It is in the HMO’s best interest to pay out as little as possible. Each approval is money they lose; each refusal is cash in their pocket.

A former insurance worker admits that her career advanced the more people for whom she refused care. “You didn’t fall through the cracks,” another says, “Somebody made the crack and swept you toward it.”

The pharmaceutical companies fare little better. Moore argues they jack up the prices of their drugs, making them next to impossible to afford for those who need them the most.

We live in the richest country on Earth, Moore states, so why don’t we offer free, universal healthcare to those most in need? Other, poorer countries manage universal healthcare and do so spectacularly. An exercise in compare and contrast, Sicko leaves America behind for almost half its running time, traveling to Canada, Great Britain, France and even Cuba to examine how they take care of their sick. At each location, Moore visits with expatriates who offer him uniquely duel-sided views of the debate. One by one he vanquishes the conservative myths that claim socialized medicine is destroying those countries that have adopted it. And with each visit, his premise that universal healthcare is doable is strengthened.

The truth is, socialized organizations are not alien to Americans at all, and far from the Red menace alarmists would like us to believe. Everything from our police and fire departments, public school, libraries and postal service are all managed by the government on a not-for-profit basis. Why should medicine be any different?

Despite the accusations of manipulation, condescension and playing fast and loose with the truth, Moore’s brand of commentary is difficult to resist. Doubtless, there will be those who can find the holes in his arguments and point out the film’s glaring oversights. And almost certainly they would be right to do so. Moore is decidedly uninterested in showing both sides of the story. His is a polemic world of diatribes and invectives. And though it might have been nice if, during the two hour running time, he had taken a moment to suggest what universal healthcare might cost the American taxpayer, it is enough, I suppose, to simply start the conversation.

While Sicko includes facts, statistics and graphs, it’s ultimately much more interested in how this drama plays out on a human level. The question is not why this utopia does not exist, but why we don’t even care to try to make it so. For Moore, it is not about politics; it is about morality. Profit, he argues, should never enter into the equation where a person’s health is concerned.

It has been said that a country can be judged by how well it treats its poorest citizens. If that is true, America is in dire straits. Sicko is a David versus Goliath story and anyone who doesn’t hear its clarion call to revolution isn’t paying attention.


Blogger Jon C. Fibbs said...

What economic ignorance on display here, both by documentarian and reviewer. You started off fairly objective and said that a discussion could and should be opened on this matter but by the time you ended you all but call those who hold opposing view points as immoral pigs with their heads in the sand holding onto "conservative myths". Your viewpoints on the issue are all but stated.

Rights are very different things from needs and one must be careful not to confuse the two. A right is a claim I have against you to treat me in a certain fashion, and should you not do so, I am then permitted to use force to compel you to do so. So, if you attempt to rob me, I have a legitimate right to resist your force by force of my own. Needs however are much different. You have a need for food, but do not have a right to food. You have a right to employ such means as you deem fit to acquire food (so long as you do not trample anyones else rights in that pursuit), but you don't have a right to food per se.

If one says that one has a right to health care then the obvious extension of that belief is that one has a corollary right to compel others to supply such health care to you.

I would disagree also that socialized medicine works but that is beside the point. The fact is that socialized medicine (as with all government programs) depends upon force. The government knows of no other way to accomplish its ends but by pure brute force. That you do not see this on a daily basis is only because you do not resist its intrusions into your life and wallet. The moment you did however...

I am not arguing that there are no problems with our health care as it currently stands in America. I am arguing that the state we see it in today is precisely because of past government in it and that the last thing we need therefore is yet more government involvement. As with all government intrusions into the free-market (which is far from what we have in any field of commerce these days, let alone the health care industry), the largest corporations and the politicians will always reap a handsome profit, the people however will be almost uniformly skewered.

As a finial thought, Americans on the left very often cry havoc when the government lead by self-righteous conservatives attempt to enforce a morality of their liking, and they should cry havoc. The government, they say, should not be involved in matters of morality; it has no business dictating morals to the people so long as they don't violate the rights of others in the course of their actions. I could not agree more. I just wish they were consistent. For one cannot hold to such a doctrine of separation of morality and state in the areas of homosexual marriage when it suites them (and I fully agree with that), but announce with equal clamor that the government MUST intervene in the exercise of freedom of others in areas such as health care/energy consumption/etc because it is a "moral issue".

7:27 PM  
Blogger Brandon said...

On a less weighty aside, I watched the film with "60 Minutes's" Andy Rooney. Very nice fella that Andy...

11:16 AM  
Blogger Grinth said...

Haven't yet seen the film since it just opened here today, but on a related note CNN posted an article in relation to the film:

Seems for the most part Moore is dead on, the part that stuck out to me was the mention that most people CNN talked to were surprised about the ommissions in Moore's film than any deviation or enhancement of statistics within 'Sicko'.

5:05 PM  
Blogger Justin said...

Sorry, but when MTV of all people stand up for those so-called "conservative myths" and show Moore to be less than honest, I think 3 1/2 stars is a bit much.

I don't really care about conservative/liberal problems in movies. No one is purely objective, less so in a documentary, and that's a not a problem for me. I'm happy that CT hasn't taken the annoying route of Christian Movie reviewers and Conservative Evangelicals and denouncing anything that may be a little to the left. But when a moviemaker needs to leave out vital statistics (and resorts to the age-old logical fallacy, the sob story) to make his point, the movie has problems that cannot be swept under the rug with a simple "yeah, but."

If we're going to honestly talk about the health-care problems in the US, a movie already being chided for selective facts and memory shouldn't be a starting point. To make it an honest discussion, it probably shouldn't even be on the table. It should probably join Ann Coulter and other personality-driven 'activists' while the more mature and responsible talk aloud.

4:18 PM  
Blogger Justin said...

This is Justin Moffatt here, not Justin (above).

THought you might like THIS from Ben Witherington (a NT Pref).


7:47 AM  

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