Michael Moore didn’t invent this grey zone where muckraking blurs into yuk-making. But nobody inhabits it more comfortably, or plays its angles so effectively. In its portrait of the ravaging effects of corporate abdication, Moore’s 1989 doc Roger & Me today looks not only pertinent but prescient, as outsourcing threatens to create a permanent American underclass. But Moore’s lasting impact may be in creating a model for activist documockery as a weapon—the template for purposefully slanted films such as Outfoxed and America: From Freedom to Fascism that advance their agendas through snark attack. Men will listen to anything if they think it’s foreplay, Susan Sarandon’s sexpot says in Bull Durham; the lesson of these docs is that audiences will listen to anything if they think it’s entertainment.
On that score, Sicko—Moore’s blistering new broadside against the health-insurance industry, and his first film since the blockbuster success of Fahrenheit 9/11—may be the least amusing and artful of his agit-pop documentaries. If laughter is the best medicine, Moore prescribes it here in doses that wouldn’t trouble the chintziest HMO. Goofy horror-movie stingers, clips from Soviet musicals and ironically deployed pop songs—e.g., President Bush selling out to the industrial health complex over Willy Wonka’s “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket”—come off as forced, even desperate attempts at levity.
What Sicko lacks in mirth, though, it makes up in wrath. And no wonder: try maintaining a funnyman’s poise in the face of what Moore reports. Some of it simply needs no embellishment, like the man who saws off the tips of his fingers on a table saw, only to have his cost-conscious hospital ask him which he wants reattached: the middle finger for $60,000, or the ring finger for $12,000. (It would have been worth the $60K just to use that middle finger.) Some is merely too infuriating—like the South Central L.A. hospital that turned away an 18-month-old toddler near cardiac arrest, hastening her death.
The outrage generated by these stories drives the movie, an epic dismantling of a thoroughly corrupt system that extends from legislators (labeled, in one effective gag, by lobbyist contributions that trail them across the screen like little thunderclouds) to insurance providers such as Kaiser Permanente, CIGNA or Humana, which rewards medical directors for refusing claims on flimsy pretexts. If you were denied for some piddling technicality, a former insurance-company hitman tells Moore, you didn’t just fall through the cracks: “Somebody made that crack and swept you toward it.” From there, it’s just a short trip to the dustbin—like the patient caught on surveillance footage who can’t pay and is rewarded with a free cab ride to Skid Row, where she’s dumped barefoot and in a hospital gown.
For anyone who pays exorbitant rates with high deductibles for health insurance, or who has faced the bureaucratic nightmare of a disputed claim—which limits Moore’s audience to roughly 250 million Americans—Sicko is extremely satisfying. Global in its optimism, bipartisan in its fury (Hillary Clinton gets tagged as a sell-out and a pawn), it’s the most revolutionary of his films in that it aims to unite the entire populace into an active coalition. “Hopeless people don’t vote” is the movie’s rallying cry, and the director appeals to nationalist pride by challenging the old yap about the evils of socialized medicine in Canada, England and the dreaded France.Less polarizing and more calculatedly populist than Moore’s recent docs, Sicko downplays the director-star’s presence for the cause. But his scruffy Columbo act remains a vehicle for positive change, however mixed up it is in his own self-aggrandizement. His closing gambit—paying off an anti-Moore critic’s medical expenses “anonymously”—is a smarmy gesture that nonetheless makes someone’s life significantly better. And as aggravating as Moore’s little-guy grandstanding gets, he’s cleverly positioned himself as a conduit for mass dissatisfaction. By making himself a celebrity and making his impact felt in opening-weekend box office, he’s insured (heh heh) that the inequities of health care will land on the nation’s news agenda. That’s entertainment.
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