With Sicko, Michael Moore has very nearly cured himself of what ails him.
His new treatise on the damage greed has done to the United States health care system is a powerful political documentary that drives home its central message without the crazy stunts, manipulative editing, and self-serving comic routines that have made Moore one of our most troubling filmmakers. His daring political mind and his guerilla approach to getting to his subjects earned Moore a reputation as an issues-driven director who stood up to bullies on behalf of the little guy. Unfortunately, somewhere on the road between 1989's Roger and Me and 2004's Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore's shtick started to make it seem like he was more interested in being a comedian than a commentator. As good and fascinating as his movies have been--including Fahrenheit--many moviegoers began to tire of how he put himself in front of the films, overshadowing his own message with contrived situations that seemed designed more to show what a jokester the director was than they were to relay information.
Not so with Sicko. Whether he took the many criticisms to heart or he just understood the gravity of his topic required a less vaudevillian touch, Michael Moore has dialed the old routines way down and for once has trusted his subject to speak for itself.
And, oh, what a subject it is. If Sicko doesn't leave you feeling as if your soul was crushed, you really weren't paying attention. Either that, or you might want to reconsider the whole soul concept from the ground up, because you're missing something.
Moore's targets from day one have almost exclusively been corporations who trample on the common man in the race to make a buck. That includes the government, who quite often are the ones holding the stopwatch, bending the rules to fit the runner who can unload the most pork into the campaign coffers. Sicko provides Moore with the most egregious intersection of big business and big government yet. Moore begins his mission by pondering why so few Americans have health insurance and why the ones that do have such a difficult time getting the care they need. From there, he discovers the links between the private health management companies and how they team with our elected officials to chisel the citizenry out of their benefits while lining their own pockets. The evidence is damning and highly nauseating.
A good portion of the movie follows Moore as he travels to countries with socialized medicine--Canada, England, and France--and debunks the myths about why this form of health care is alleged not to work. Acting as a kind of journalistic detective, we follow Moore as he gathers evidence both concrete and anecdotal. He doesn't set up situations where he can illicit a "Gotcha!" moment from some corrupt corporate stooge with his hand in the cookie jar, but instead lets his curiosity lead him. The doctors and patients in these foreign settings say enough without resorting to trickery.
Not that Moore can completely resist going for the joke. A segment about Hillary Clinton is appallingly cheap, and the much hyped stunt of taking rescue workers from 9/11 to Guantanamo Bay to see if he can get them the same medical treatment afforded to the alleged terrorists detained there borders on the exploitative. Since being barred from places he intends to expose has previously been his stock and trade, the director milks the lack of army response for all its worth--and that ain't much.
Thankfully, where this stunt ultimately takes him is far more valuable. Checking the ailing medical workers into a Cuban hospital and seeing their faces when they finally get the help America has been denying them is emotionally devastating. In this scenario, Moore has shown how far off the mark our nation has gotten. If even Cuba, a country that is supposed to be far less wealthy, less advanced, and crippled by oppression, can pull together to take care of its people, what the hell is the United States of America's excuse for leaving so many out in the cold?
As Sicko ended, I was glad I had not given up on Michael Moore, and even more glad that he hadn't given up on himself. After all the ballyhoo surrounding Fahrenheit 9/11, including awards at Cannes and the Best Documentary Oscar, the director could have tumbled backward into self-parody. Instead, Michael Moore has moved forward and done something important with his art. Sicko is must-see viewing. It's a sharp political commentator finding the true synthesis of method and message. The more people who see the movie, the more that will be outraged, and the less we can duck out of doing something to fix the problems it exposes.
Thank you, Michael Moore. Let the healing continue.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.