June 22, 2007


Moore expands his new American mythology with a look at the health care nightmare

By Vadim Rizov

Michael Moore is a manipulative bully with no use for verifiable statistics and cold logic, using every bathetic means at his disposal to cow unthinking audiences into agreeing with him. His favored technique is to stack anecdotal evidence on top of innuendo, assembling a case out of a scattered stream of disconnected stories. Interviewees are seemingly vetted to ensure a tearful breakdown, to be followed by a quick cut to Moore's grimly compassionate face; emotional appeal trumps all.

That said, sometimes he has a point; with Sicko, frustratingly so. Three years after Fahrenheit 9/11, it's hard to remember why Moore came up with the highest-grossing documentary in history ($119 million in the US alone). That film was supposed to deliver a ready-made burden of evidence for impeachment and swing the election back to the Democrats, courtesy of a freshly outraged populace. Instead, Moore produced the dullest two hours of a career that previously could never be called boring.

Sicko is -- at the very least -- not boring, in part because it's completely terrifying. Tell enough different stories of people whose cancer/dismemberment/kidney disease/etc. claims were denied, leading to permanent disability and/or death, and mere anecdotal evidence against the American health care system starts to seem pretty compelling. This viewer, at any rate, was convinced beforehand that America's health care system was fucked (being a freelance writer with no benefits will do that for you), and while I will not offer (to follow Glenn Kenny's sage instructions) "a position paper on universal health care," I think it's safe to say the film is at least mildly persuasive unless you're Kyle Smith.

Moore begins with standard tactics: The very first shot is George W., deep in the thicket of a typical malapropism. This cheap shot dispensed, Moore proceeds to fill the screen with a gory close-up of an uninsured man stitching up his own wound. Then, to go for the gusto, he presents the story of a couple whose deductibles have bankrupted them, forcing them to move in to one of their six children's spare rooms. They weep, and then suddenly the grandkids are weeping; seems their daddy's been deployed to Iraq.

With all of his manipulative cards presented in one fell swoop, Moore is free to turn off the waterworks and move on to testimonies that are genuinely devastating, even while sticking to his naïve, dumb-guy persona. "I always thought the insurance companies were there to help us," he muses mock-innocently in voiceover before presenting the film's major coup: the stories of former insurance workers, who testify to the industry's mendacious interest in denying as many claims as possible, even when they're clearly in the medical wrong. One woman indicates that bonuses were awarded to those who denied the most claims.

It would have helped Moore's case to find the doctors who file the claims, or at least a credible rebuttal witness. Instead, having established one part of what should be a multi-tiered argument, Moore moves on to the bulk of the film, which is also its weakest part. That America is ranked 37th by the World Health Organization in overall health care is fairly persuasive. So is the information that the French -- with free universal coverage -- live three years longer on average. But Moore flattens the nuances and complexities of anything he touches, including the health care systems of other countries. It's all the better to make his argument, sure, but wouldn't a relevant discussion of what it would mean to implement such a plan (i.e., tax rates, statistics on what percentage of the French population is satisfied with their care) help bolster the case? Anyone with even passing knowledge of Canadian health care will smell a rat when Moore interviews a handful of Canadians who claim that their waiting room time has never exceeded 45 minutes. "To any Canadian who has ever been forced to go to emergency, this would seem unbelievable," writes Thomas Walkom, going on to note that Moore is fundamentally right about the insanity of American health care. Presenting an argument with more shades of grey wouldn't help make the necessary points to American audiences, he concludes. Still, for anyone with a remotely skeptical attitude, it's increasingly difficult to take Moore's utopian views of other countries at face value. Every missing caveat seems like a deliberate sin of omission.

For all of these problems, Sicko has value for two reasons. Moore presents enough numbers to suggest that further research, even with a greater attention to detail, would ultimately validate him. What is perpetually frustrating about Moore's tactics is how they can obscure that he's quite often on the right path -- closer here than he's been in a while. The other main virtue of Sicko is how well it crystallizes Moore's sensibility, which seems closer than ever to a kind of new American mythology. It's not The Grapes of Wrath, but in Moore's America, we live in the perpetual collapse of FDR and LBJ's ideals; united by the slow crushing of the American Dream by profit-obsessed forces, we must pull together to fight the lingering ghosts of Nixon and Reagan. Moore self-consciously embodies the Ugly American, both figuratively and literally. Traveling abroad and pretending to be clueless about other countries, the unhealthy figure he cuts could almost stand in for the diseased American body politic.

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