In a searing two-hour indictment of the American health care system, and, partly, the American way of life, Michael Moore presents us his latest documentary, Sicko, perhaps in the hope that it will make a difference. There is much in the film to give viewers sleepless nights, but it is more than a mere litany of grief and sickness. We are presented with alternative models of health care, and a hard push is made for universal health care in one form or another.
Michael Moore may be emerging as an accomplished auteur of personal documentary-style cinema with Sicko. His knack for turning the camera and the viewers into patient listeners and observers of reality imparts an anthropological flair to the film. All the same, this is not an anthropological documentary like one we might see on the Discovery Channel or National Geographic. Sicko blends personal histories with tragic moments, some dry humour with even a bit of farce and play-acting of solutions, such as the by-now infamous trip to Cuba, and the 'revelations' of universal health care in the Guantanamo Bay prison, and subsequent medical treatment of 9/11 rescue workers in Havana, Cuba.
The American health care system might be better than, say, that of Burundi, but, as Michael Moore shows, it has bartered social goals for capitalist objectives. This would ordinarily be a good thing, and indeed is what has given the free markets system its undeniable ability to deliver the most benefits from constrained resource sets, yet it may not be the only way to solve a constrained-resources problem like delivering limited health care resources to a seemingly unlimited consumer base. As the examples of Canada, Britain, France, and even Cuba illustrate, health care can be treated much like other social services such as policing, fire engines, and schools, and delivered through a collectivized cost process that commits to availability of these social services to every citizen, irrespective of economic or health status.
The film touches on numerous additional social issues, albeit tangentially, such as the debt crisis in American society, and demolishes numerous shibboleths about universal health care, such as the availability of medical services in countries that follow this model, like Canada. He demonstrates through real-world examples how the system could work, if social benefits were given more priority. Some of his examples will doubtless be dissected and critiqued, gaps in reportage scrutinized, and counter-examples provided by defenders of private-driven health care systems in neoliberal America. Yet it would be close to impossible to deny his basic thesis, namely that the system is broken, not just for the 50 million or so uninsured citizens, but even for the non-plutocratic rest of us, who are merely trying to get by, and paying up our insurance premiums, and hoping against hope that there would be no need to go up against the health-care system for anything more serious than a sniffle; although, as Michael Moore shows, even a simple yeast infection can be sufficient cause to deny benefits in the future.
Despite its length, Sicko does not go too deeply into many aspects, such as the actual role of Big Pharma in the health care crisis, focusing more on the big insurers and their adherence to profit principles, showing how this distorts priorities and the quality of delivered health care. There are a few overlong sections that could have been cut, such as an aging Old Labour warrior singing the praises of Clement Atlee's National Health Service, the British 'national religion'.
The Hillary Clinton-espoused universal health care exercise of the 1990s is also explored, and this might have been the film that handed her the Presidency, were it not for the none-too-unusual revelation that she accepted significant lobbying/campaign contributions from the very industry she set out to reform, becoming, in 2005-06, the second-highest health care funded politician in the United States,though not the only one. The industry-politics nexus is not limited to health care, or even to the United States, and is a natural outcome of a neoliberal system, yet it is somewhat disconcerting to see it in action, especially when it is our lives and health at stake rather than sausage and pork barrels.
Michael Moore's favorite whipping-boy, President George W Bush, is picked on a few times in this film, although more in the sense of highlighting relevant Bushisms and his role in passing the Medicare Act of 2003. Sicko segues onto themes raised in Moore's last film, Fahrenheit 9/11 by providing a kind of report card on the plight of 9/11 rescue workers and their illnesses, and in a moving scene, demonstrating the universality of tragedy through the honoring of American rescue workers by Cuban fire fighters.
The film provides a warning and perhaps an opportunity, yet it is hard to believe that it could overturn an entire health care system in the most prosperous country in the world. All the same, if it makes a difference in a few lives, it would have done more than most films.