By Matt Singer
[Photo: “Sicko,” Weinstein Company/Lionsgate, 2007]
Provocative, entertaining, educational and utterly infuriating, Michael Moore’s “Sicko” exposes a deeply ingrained illness in the American healthcare system. Symptoms include indifference to suffering and bloating of stockholders’ wallets. According to Moore’s frank diagnosis, the insurance companies care too much about their profits and not enough about their customers. One former insurance company staffer who had a crisis of conscience explains how things worked in her office. A denial rate was tabulated based on the number of claims each caseworker rejected. Whoever denied the most treatment (or, in the industry’s terminology, the most “payment”) received a bonus. In some instances, she is quite certain that her denial of payment lead to someone’s death.
Moore examines our system and also puts it in relief, by traveling abroad and seeing how others in the Western world manage their own healthcare industries. He finds, to his great shock (some of which seems a bit too staged for the camera), that you can get good care without paying a dime beyond your tax dollars in Canada, England, France and elsewhere. In contrast to what we’ve been taught for decades by the insurance industry and helpful materials like the classic record “Ronald Reagan Speaks Out Against Socialized Medicine” (!), these systems are thriving, and doctors can still make a good salary and live in good homes, patients can still make choices about what doctors to visit, and taxpayers can still afford to go on vacation even when they have to help pay for a nation’s clinics.
Though he has increasingly become the single most polarizing filmmaker (if not public figure of any arena) in the entire country, Michael Moore has made a film that could probably convince any relatively open-minded citizen of its basic arguments, regardless of their political affiliation. That’s not to say it doesn’t take a couple cheap shots. Even though Moore explains that his movie is not about the 50 million Americans who have no health coverage, he spends the first twenty minutes or so of the film chronicling some of their worst horror stories. His mock-soothing narration is often so naively earnest it’s borderline painful. And, of course, he can’t resist the occasional Bush joke, as when the Commander in Chief hilariously bemoans that OB/GYNs can “no longer practice their love” with women across the country.
But there are also no scenes of CEOs squirming on-camera and Moore himself doesn’t appear in the flesh until nearly halfway through the film. The focus, instead, rests on regular people with regular, frequent problems, all caused by our healthcare system. The most notorious, and perhaps the most moving, are those of 9/11 rescue workers who, essentially left for dead by the insurance companies, are taken by Moore to Cuba for what was surely a scrupulously controlled tour of the island’s hospital facilities, apparently amongst the best in the world. One volunteer paramedic whose lungs were devastated by the toxic dust she breathed in for weeks at Ground Zero finds her $100 inhaler she goes through about two a month cost just five cents each at a Cuban pharmacy.
“Sicko” might not be Moore’s best film (I’d still vote for “Roger and Me”) or his most impassioned (“Fahrenheit 9/11”). But it’s undeniably his most persuasive. It might not change the American healthcare system, but, then again, it might. If it is one-sided and it most certainly is then let the insurance companies make their own movie. If it moves audiences as much as Moore’s, we’ll call it a draw.
“Sicko” is now playing in New York, and will open nationwide on June 29th (official site).