Michael Moore’s new movie, just like his earlier movies, is both exasperating and exhilarating. It gets a lot of individual things wrong, sometimes very wrong: logic, an organized and complete presentation of facts, the construction of an argument as opposed to throwing out a naïve polemic full of sentimental anecdotes and non sequiturs. And yet…and yet. Moore manages to get the big things remarkably right: Sicko is often uproariously funny, and it will also likely leave you in tears. It poses a simple question and demands an answer: Why is the U.S. the only Western democracy without universal healthcare? Why are we willing to let our fellow citizens suffer?
The film seems designed to make free-market partisans apoplectic while inspiring everyone else to chant alongside the righteous. Personally I’d prefer a documentary along the lines of PBS’s excellent Frontline series, which could lead you through the history of healthcare and the arguments for and against a single-payer system, and leave you feeling like a well-informed citizen ready to make a decision. But good as it is, Frontline won’t galvanize people, get them buzzed, the way Michael Moore can. He’s about to make a very big splash with this movie. He’ll succeed in getting people talking about an important issue, one which already promises to be a big part of next year’s presidential race.
Behind the opening credits we get a few stories about the uninsured, told quickly and with bemused, ironic twists. “But this movie is not about these people,” says Moore, as he proceeds to turn his attention to people who do have health insurance, yet were turned down for treatment, often with tragic results. He then offers a whole series of these anecdotes designed to appall you and make you cry. My heart actually sank a bit during the first half hour. While some of these stories are effective, they are overlong and rather clumsily told, and Moore’s voice takes on a wheedling “Isn’t this saaaad?” tone that made me want to fight back.
This section is followed by a brief and very incomplete history of health care in the United States. Moore scores cheap points by painting Nixon as the architect of Evil Managed Care. (This may remind you of the pointless conspiracy mongering about the Bushes and Saudi Arabia in Fahrenheit 9/11.) He’s a bit more successful in describing the efforts of the doctors’ and pharmaceutical lobbies to demonize “socialized medicine,” from the 1950s right through HillaryCare in 1993.