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.