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Sicko   B-

The Weinstein Company / Lionsgate

Year Released: 2007
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Michael Moore
Writer: Michael Moore
Cast: Michael Moore.

Review by Rob Vaux

I'm not quite prepared to turn against Michael Moore's new documentary Sicko. His technique is too polished and his cause is too just. For all the complaints leveled against him -- the egotism, the needless hostility, the shall we say enthusiastic manipulation of the facts -- his work still reaches for noble ends. He pushes buttons that need to be pushed, he asks questions that no one else dares to ask. His targets are men in high places -- folks with myriad means of defending themselves who don't need our pity when some angry fat man comes pounding on their door -- and if he slips into demagoguery, at least it involves issues worth confronting. The difficulty (which Sicko exemplifies to its detriment) is that his ends sometimes justify some extremely suspect means, which allow detractors to dismiss him out of hand. But does that make the corruption he points out any less repugnant?

As most people know by now, Sicko focuses on America's health care industry, and the implicit evil of evaluating people's well-being according to the bottom line. Moore uses two primary weapons in his attack: pointing out how awful medical coverage is in the U.S. and demonstrating how wonderful it is elsewhere. In both instances, he proves disturbingly light on concrete facts, relying more on personal anecdotes and statements of the blindingly obvious to make his points. (Congressmen can be bought like cheap whores? Really?! Thank God you're here to tell us these things, Mike!) Yet many of those anecdotes make such a powerful emotional connection that the dry numbers fitfully used to back them up appear almost redundant.

Their message is crystal clear. HMOs place profits first, and if someone in need of care gets in the way of that, they'll happily crush the poor soul like a bug. Overpriced drug prescriptions and blanket denial of coverage means grossly inflated profits, and with the government comfortably in its pocket, the medical industry can continue getting rich at the expense of their hapless customers... many of whom dearly need the care they presumably paid good money to receive. Moore is smart enough to stay out of the spotlight when making his assertions, instead pointing the camera at dozens of ordinary Americans who have been ground beneath those wheels. Their stories are heartbreaking, their grief and financial trauma unspeakable. Sicko works best simply by letting them tell their stories, using their pain to demonstrate the human cost of the system as it currently stands. And while Moore's lecturing voice-over pounds the arguments like a rubber hammer, it's hard to argue with the faces onscreen -- faces that wouldn't have a forum without an effort like this.

Things become much shakier when Sicko departs our shores for foreign parts, painting socialized programs as magical dreamlands of utopian perfection. Canada has no health care problems, Moore reveals in mock wonder. French and English hospitals run as smooth as clockwork. Even Third World pits like Cuba take better care of their people than we do, a point Moore drives home in the film's most blatant piece of showmanship. Unable to find adequate recompense for a bunch of 9/11 rescue workers, Moore smuggles them into Cuba, where friendly doctors treat their ailments without batting an eyelash. As staged theater, it's brilliant -- Moore's sense of irony may have no peer -- and yet its connection to reality feels tangential at best. The Cuban government has no problems scoring PR points at America's expense, and one senses adamant phone calls from high-placed officials -- eager to stick it to Yankee HMOs -- behind the Pollyanna scenario onscreen.

Similar problems compound large parts of Sicko, deflating their strengths even as Moore's always-entertaining techniques keep us watching. We hear from a dining room full of American expatriates about how great the French system is... but one glimpse of their tasteful clothes and bohemian erudition infers a distinct skew in their perceptions. (No Algerian slums here; I wonder how high they are on the French system?) Canada's hospitals are apparently marvelous, but Moore uses a pair of his own relatives to sing their praises -- hardly the most objective of sources. (The Canadian media apparently went after him at Cannes for glossing over the significant problems in their health care.) And in England, where they pay for your cab fare to get to the doctor, Moore delves into the formation of government-run health care at the end of World War II... without mentioning the American financial support that made it possible. Sicko covers up such inconvenient facts with slick editing and a fine sense of humor, but they slowly grow louder as more of them keep piling up.

Despite that, however, the target is simply too large and too obviously broken to keep the film from hitting home. The medical profession should exist first and foremost to help those in need; by bringing money into the equation, HMOs transform that basic equation into a piece of monstrous cruelty. Moore's omnipresent implication of fear as a means of control finds choice ground in an arena where lives literally hang in the balance. Sicko stands with those who have been gravely mistreated by a system that clearly cares nothing for them... and only a fool would assume that theirs are isolated cases. Beneath all the bombast and propaganda, the film's central question remains. We are the richest and most powerful culture in the history of human civilization. Why can't we take better care of our people? Sicko tackles the issue imperfectly to be sure, but it's still an issue worth tackling. And I don't see anyone else stepping up to the plate.

Review published 07.01.2007.

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