Directed by Michael Moore. (2007, PG-13, 123 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., June 29, 2007
In his new film, professional gadfly Moore alights on the topic of the shortcomings of the American health-care system and, with this subject, crafts his most widely accessible and least divisive documentary to date. His film contends that the American system of managed health care is conceptually misguided and governed by the for-profit motives of the insurance industry. Sicko argues that universal health coverage should be regarded as a basic human right and strikes a resounding blow against Americans’ culturally ingrained resistance to the idea of socialized medicine. He does this not in his customary fashion of pounding on the doors of insurance CEOs to deliver withering on-camera ambushes and humiliations, but instead with the stories of dozens of middle-class Americans who have dutifully paid their insurance premiums and felt secure about their coverage only to find themselves abandoned by their insurance companies during their times of need. The story Moore tells is one that cuts through all political and social boundaries, disease being an enemy that strikes indiscriminately. Sure, the filmmaker remains a master of rhetoric and a sometimes sentimental sap, but this time he uses those strategies to great cinematic effect (though admittedly, Moore’s aw-shucks, average-guy posture and grossly overweight bearing is an occasional distraction that makes a viewer want to point out that a diet and simple exercise plan would go a long way toward solving the filmmaker’s personal health crisis). Moore visits health facilities in England, Canada, France, and Cuba – countries where universal health coverage is assured – and shows many examples of how these systems are superior to the managed care in the U.S. and how socialized medicine doesn’t have to mean diminished care for patients or reduced wages for doctors. Granted, his studies of these countries neglect to ask a number of questions and show incomplete pictures, yet it’s impossible to come away from these examples without wondering how it is that America is the only industrialized nation that does not provide universal coverage – especially curious given our easy acceptance of the universal rights to such things as education and Social Security. Extremely successful are also the segments in which Moore reveals a moment in the Nixon White House tapes (“the gift that goes on giving,” Moore says in interviews) in which he identifies the president’s delight over Kaiser’s new health plan that provides less coverage for more profit and the way in which Hillary Clinton evolved from the overhauler of the U.S. health system as a newcomer to Washington to her present position as the second biggest recipient of insurance company money. Never one to settle for the “if you can’t beat them, join them” approach, Moore moves the debate’s front lines to your nearest movie theatre. Though we will differ on the methods of improving the American health-care system, Sicko’s enduring contribution is the undeniable evidence that the system is broken. If the film brings the debate out into the open of our movie lobbies and living rooms, it can’t be long before the conversation trickles into the corridors of Congress.