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It’s sort of a testament to Michael Moore’s skill as a filmmaker that I leave every first screening of one of his movies wanting to get all Che Guevara on America’s ass, smashing Hummers and redistributing the wealth. Moore has been called a propagandist by his foes, and even if you love his work, you’ve got to admit that the title sticks. He does have a knack for knowing just the right buttons to push, both in those who agree and those who disagree with him. That said, you’ve also got to respect the fact that his films aren’t some mild, lay-there-and-do-nothing works of art (which is — let’s face it — what most documentaries are, no matter how beautifully wrought). By contrast, Moore’s films are purpose-built tools, carefully carved levers with which Moore tries to move the world. If you’re bent in his political direction, chances are you love him a little bit for that. If you aren’t, you might well want to see him strung up from the maypole.
With his new documentary, “Sicko,” Moore may actually be able to accomplish some of the change he has been striving after for so long. A thoughtful, funny, moving look at the greed and callousness that has run rampant in the American health insurance industry, it’s surely an eye opener — a treatise that will appeal to Democrats and Republicans alike.
The best thing about Moore’s work has always been the human stories he manages to find in the American wilderness — those obscure figures who seem to perfectly encapsulate both sides of an issue. With “Sicko,” Moore goes after those personal stories with gusto, keeping himself out of the frame and letting regular folks speak their piece. The results are both heartbreaking and remarkable — a damning indictment of the way we handle health care in America: a middle-aged couple forced to move into their daughter’s garage after they’re driven to bankruptcy by medical woes; a former insurance investigator whose only job was to root out mistakes in insurance applications so that coverage could be denied after patients racked up stratospheric bills; a 9/11 firefighter whose PTSD was so severe he ground his teeth down to aching stumps, only to see his claim for dental work denied; an EMT from Ground Zero who pays $125 a week for an inhaler cartridge that can be purchased for pennies just over the border; a carpenter who was given a choice: reattach his ring finger for $12,000, or his middle finger for $60,000.
Knowing that sob stories aren’t enough, Moore wisely juxtaposes these cases with personal accounts from countries that offer free universal health care. What he finds is far from the Soviet gulag-style horror show that the news media and politicians assured us socialized medicine was back during the Clinton administration’s quest for universal health care. In Canada, Moore visits another carpenter who managed to cut off his entire hand and have it reattached for no fee. In England, he talks to person after person — doctors, pharmacists and patients — who find the idea of health care in proportion to one’s ability to pay so absurd and cruel as to be laughable. In France, he rides along with a doctor who works for the government’s 24-hour (and free) house call service. And these aren’t people drowning in taxes, starving their doctors or waiting for hours in hospitals straight out of Charles Dickens. The only difference between health care there and health care here seems to be the lack of a billing department in the hospitals and the fact that nobody worries they’re going to get cancer and leave their family destitute. Call it careful propaganda if you will, but Moore speaks to enough patients and doctors who seem genuinely happy with socialized medicine that he sold me hook, line and sinker. Moreover, when weighed against the stories most Americans can tell you about friends and neighbors whose failing bodies have landed them in health care hell, any system where the bean counters aren’t allowed to kick you to the curb when your insurance runs out or deny you life-saving medical treatment as prescribed by your doctor seems pretty damned good — be it filtered through the lens of a man with a leftie agenda or not.
In short, “Sicko” turns out to be the best work of Moore’s career, hands down. Though his other films have mostly bounced off the thick hide of the issues he tackled, their impact dulled both by Moore’s need to put himself in front of the camera and his deep left politics, “Sicko” shows a more mature filmmaker, one who knows the issue of health care is too important for him to screw it up with much of the too-clever goofiness or partisan agenda of his past efforts. With that, Moore might have finally landed what he’s been fishing for his entire career: a film that manages to make such a shout that the Powers That Be can’t help but hear it.