I already know what some of you are going to say, so let's just get it out of the way. Michael Moore is a fat slob, left-leaning, Commie, liberal scumbag who pretends to be a journalist, but is really a self-serving filmmaker with no talent who skewers the truth to fit his own agenda, hates America, and needs to be silenced. Is that everything, or am I missing anything?
The fact of the matter is that to some of you Michael Moore is all of the above and more. But since all of the same things and much worse have been said about me, I must be cut from similar cloth. Of course, this makes me biased, and as you will see as you read further, I have sympathy for the devil that is Michael Moore--which is my way of saying that you may not want to read any further. And if you do read further, and find yourself disagreeing with anything I say, please refrain from responding until you have watched Moore's new film Sicko.
Moore has made a lot of enemies over the years with incendiary documentaries like Roger & Me, Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11 that have targeted big business, George Bush, the NRA and right-wing conservatives. This time around Moore has his camera pointed at the American healthcare industry, which includes insurance companies and pharmaceuticals that have made billions of dollars, often at the expense of people's well being.
The failings of the American healthcare system are not exactly a deep dark secret. Anyone who has been to the doctor or the hospital in the last twenty years has seen the outrageous cost of care that even with the benefit of insurance can be overwhelming. Many of those with insurance have had to deal with claims that have been denied, often resulting in death because insurance companies refused to cover the cost of treatment or medication. And then there are those without insurance--somewhere in the vicinity of 45 million Americans. If, by some quirk of fate you have never had a negative experience in dealing with healthcare, or nobody you personally know has ever had a bad experience, you are either one of the luckiest people in the country or living under a rock, because everyone either has a bad story to tell, or a bad story they've heard. So when push comes to shove, Sicko is not exactly revealing some deep dark secret.
Unlike Moore's other movies, which for lack of a better description are left-leaning attacks on the right made more palatable by a folksy sense of humor designed to mask the bitter taste, Sicko almost seems tame. This is not an all-out assault on the Bush administration like Fahrenheit 9/11, and there are no moments nearly as awkward as when Moore confronted NRA spokesman Charlton Heston in Bowling for Columbine. In fact, Moore who has always served as the dorky, disheveled master of ceremonies in his rake-'em-over-the-coals treatises steps away from the center-ring spotlight in Sicko. The argument could be made that Moore is getting soft, or that he is simply getting more mature and realizes that there comes a time when as a filmmaker you need to tell the story more than be part of the story. Whatever the case may be, Sicko comes across as being a film Moore wants taken seriously by a larger cross-section of the population.
None of this is to say that Moore isn't wearing his usual bias emblazed across his chest like the symbol of some superhero, his cape flapping in the wind of controversy and his fist firmly clenching the Bill of Rights. No, the Michael we love--or hate depending on your leanings--is still hard at work, looking for who to blame as more and more Americans go without adequate healthcare. He doesn't have to look too far to find what he presents as the guilty parties and the smoking gun. Through old recordings of Richard Nixon--this would be from those secret recordings that helped force Tricky Dick out of office--we are privy to a conversation between the former President and aide John Ehlrichman. During this conversation, Ehlrichman refers to "health maintenance organizations like Edward Kaiser's Permanente thing." As the conversation progresses, Ehlrichman explains to Nixon how Kaiser's organization is a for-profit company that earns money through managed healthcare by encouraging less care for patients. Cut to: footage of Nixon the next day giving a speech about healthcare reform.
Thirty-six years after what Moore posits to be the beginning of a rapid decline in healthcare in America, he paints a grim portrait of a nation that can't seem to find the cure for what ails us, despite wealth and resources that put most other nations to shame. The early part of Sicko starts with introductions, via home videos, of average Americans, both insured and uninsured, who have run afoul of the medical industrial complex. Without going into the specifics, none of the stories end well. The lucky people end up in debt, broke, or homeless. The unlucky people die, not because there is no treatment, but because either they can't afford the treatment, or their insurance companies deny their claims. As the film progresses, there is a feeling of dread with each new person Moore brings into the spotlight, because there is a good chance they may have already died. And what is unsettling is how, despite the fact Moore never really paints any sort of complex portrait of any of the people in Sicko, they are all so familiar to us. Again, unless you've been living under a rock, you don't have to go very far to find someone with a tale of terror involving healthcare.
Inevitably, Moore broaches the taboo subject of the dreaded "SM"--socialized medicine. One of the driving agendas of Bill Clinton's presidential bid of 1992, the charge for healthcare reform was led by former first lady Hilary Clinton with a rabid fury. The repair of the current system, however, was effectively destroyed before Clinton's first term in office was over. For those that paid attention to the lion's roar fury that the Clinton's entered the healthcare reformation fray with, only to see them slink away like a pussy that's been chewed up and spit out by a pit-bull, it was a sobering realization of just how powerful the companies that manage America's health really is.
In the 1990s socialized medicine was attacked with no-less ferocity than Communism was in the 1950s. To hear anti-healthcare reform pundits (most of them conservative Republicans), socialized medicine would spell the end of this country, destroying freedom with more glee and vigor than the terrorists we now must defend ourselves against. It is easy, in a country full of near-illiterates with a memory that can't retain much of anything for longer than a few months, to forget how important healthcare reform was in the 1990s, and how viciously attacked it was by the nay-sayers. But, as Sicko reminds us, healthcare reform died just like a cancer patient whose insurance claims are denied because chemotherapy--a common form of cancer treatment--is deemed too "radical" or "unproven" to approve. Clearly "radical" and "unproven" come from the same lexicon where "I'm sorry" actually means "Fuck you."
At the heart and soul of Sicko is Moore's thesis that socialized medicine, at least in some form, is the only way to cure America. To prove his point, the filmmaker journeys to Canada, England, and Cuba, three nations with socialized healthcare that, at least in theory, are where Moore wants us to think the United States should be heading. It is during these trips that Moore falls back on some of his old tricks. He relies on that gee-whiz sense of humor that can be both charming and condescending all at the same time. His efforts to prove that these other nations have better healthcare than America is typically one-sided, but not without effective resonance. I mean come on, as great as balanced and unbiased journalism may be--and let's never forget that Moore is a filmmaker, not a journalist--some things speak for themselves, and no amount of balance can change certain perceptions. Case in point: in Canada we meet a man who accidentally sawed off four of his fingers, and was able to have all of the digits reattached at no cost. Compared to the American who accidentally sawed off only two fingers, and was given a choice of spending either $60,000 to reattach the middle finger, or a mere $12,000 to reattach the ring finger.
By the time Moore heads to Cuba with a group of sick people, including 9/11 rescue workers who have not been able to get adequate treatment in the United States, he has long since won over the choir he preaches to, and driven off many of those who hate the very concept of his being. And while it would be easy to see the quality medical treatment provided in Cuba as a bit of Castro-fueled propaganda, the fact of the matter is that these people did get treatment. Cuba may actually be the evil monster most Americans like it to believe, but let us not forget that it was one of the first countries to offer aid after the attacks on September 11, only to be rebuked by the Bush administration. So, if Sicko is little more than an unbalanced bit of propaganda, it is no worse than the propaganda that passes off as legitimate journalism, when it is in fact nothing more of a tool of a system that still wants to make a villain out of a tiny island nation that has long since proven itself to be of little threat.
It would be easy for the Moore haters to dismiss Sicko purely on principle. But, with a little luck, and some open-minded viewing by those that would otherwise turn a blind eye, maybe the film can help create the sort of outraged backlash that needs to occur if the medical industrial complex is ever to be reformed. Sure, that's pie-in-the-sky optimistic thinking, especially given the failure of Fahrenheit 9/11 to avert a second Bush term. At the same time, more Americans are finally beginning to see what that film was trying, in its leftist way to show. Bush's current low approval rating, the crumbling of the GOP, and the disenchanted way so many stay-the-course Americans now feel merely offers the argument that Fahrenheit 9/11 was ahead of its time, and that it took much of the country two years to fully comprehend what the film was detailing.
If Fahrenheit 9/11 came along at the wrong time, so too may Sicko be the victim of unfortunate timing. The recent presidential election in France has brought in a more conservative administration that threatens to dismantle much of France's current healthcare system. And there is a push in Canada to also reform their system. Both countries are feeling the effects of a well-orchestrated and heavily financed move by the same corporate machinery that controls America's healthcare. Sadly, this is never mentioned in Sicko (most likely because it has transpired after the film was completed). But the biggest, most glaring example of bad timing in Sicko has to be the recent controversy surrounding Iraq War veterans and inadequate treatment at Walter Reade Hospital, which is never mentioned. If there is any one story that lays bare the let-them-suffer-and-die-while-we-count-the-profits mantra that dictates how medical care is administered in this country, it has been played out at Walter Reade. It is one thing to not provide adequate healthcare to people like me, who sit back on our fat asses and complain about everything that is wrong. But it is another thing altogether to ask men and women to risk life and limb "fighting for freedom," only to leave them wasting in beds, wallowing in their own feces, with stumps where their arms and legs used to be, grappling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as private corporations sit back and count the profits.
Sicko is as important a film as any Moore has ever made--which means if you don't like his past work there's a chance you won't like this one either. Like all of his work it has its biases and its flaws. Personally, I took a lot from the movie, not the least of which was a dehumanizing feeling that my life and the life of most Americans has no real value. But where the film falls short for me is that it fails to address what I see as the real problem in United States. This country, which has many great and wonderful things to speak of, is disabled and debilitated by one of the most deadly diseases known to the human race. That disease is greed, and it is the dominant principle on which this country was built. The Revolutionary War was waged because the British wanted tax dollars and the Colonists didn't want to give up the dough. The Civil War was fought, not because of slavery, but because of economics. Native Americans were systematically wiped off the face of the Earth because of an all-consuming need by people to possess more. Civil Rights laws were enacted, not because it was the right thing to do, but because there was money in the black community that wasn't being spent in the large department stores where they were barred from shopping. Nearly everything that has happened and continues to happen in this country is based on the parasitic desire to have more material goods and more money, even at the expense of lives.
We do not live in a democracy, because in a democracy the government fears the people, instead of the people fearing the government. No my friends, we live in a capitalist society. And in a capitalist society, those with the most capital rule with absolute power. We may be able to vote one bad leader out of office, but there are others, with the financial support and wherewithal--manipulated by corporations that are more protected by laws than individuals--to step right up without missing a beat.
The medical industrial complex hides behind the friendly smiles and caring facade they shove down our throats, convincing us that our well-being is their priority. But the insurance companies, HMOs and pharmaceuticals that make up the medical industrial complex are a cartel that is nothing more than a tentacle of the corporate monster that chokes the life out all but a select few. Insurance companies are extortionists shaking people down for money under the auspices of providing protection. The HMOs that dictate how are healthcare is provided are pimps that have us working two and three jobs, slaving away like streetwalking ho's doing full-swallow blowjobs and getting fucked in the ass just so we can be "healthy". Only the pharmaceutical companies are upfront about what they do--they are dope peddlers. It doesn't matter to them where the money comes from, but if you want the pills they're pushing, you will need to pay.
No matter how you feel about Michael Moore--love him or hate him--Sicko offers a shred of an inkling into what has become a far greater threat to the well-being of this country than any terrorist group. It does not offer a full diagnosis, or even a cure, but like the chronic cough that won't go away, the shooting pain in your left arm, or the painful burning sensation when you take a piss, it helps by pointing out the symptoms of a much more serious ailment.
David Walker is the creator of BadAzz MoFo, a nationally published film critic, and the Writer/Director of Black Santa's Revenge with Ken Foree now on DVD [Buy it now]