November 11, 2007

Film Review: Sicko Dir. Michael Moore

The first appearance health care made in Michael Moore’s films was during Bowling For Columbine. While visiting Canada, contrasting the unlocked doors of one street with the paranoia of US society, Moore also enquired with faux ignorance about free health care. The youths he questioned responded with a mixture of bemusement and slight pride; the principle of universal healthcare was not up for debate. It’s a technique that Moore harnesses to devastating effect in Sicko.

Sicko is a white-hot indictment of a US health system that checks the wallet before the pulse. Unique among western states, the country is still without a free, universal system treating patients on the basis of need. Moore marshals a few basic facts; 50 million Americans are without health insurance, Costa Rica rank above the US for care, and then goes for his target hard. If you’re hoping for a technical, systematic analysis of health care then you’ll leave disappointed, but Moore’s film proves an inspiring reminder of the elementary principles of human solidarity. The opening of the film is a tour of some of the health horrors left neglected by the system. A couple are forced to sell their home after the man suffers three heart attacks and the woman contracts cancer. They end up living with their already overstretched daughter. For millions of citizens the choice is an unpalatable one of working till you die, or dying if you don’t work.

Perverse examples abound. One woman is charged for her ambulance journey after being told it was not “pre-ordered”. A 22-year old who contracts cervical cancer is told that she’s “too young” for her insurance deal to cover it. Such a callous system does not emerge in a vacuum, and Moore succinctly exposes those who have acquired a vested interest in its maintenance.

In a wonderful find, the deadly logic is described on tape by one of Richard Nixon’s aides. Reassuring an initially sceptical Nixon, John Ehrlichman declares, “All the incentives run the right way: the less care they give them, the more money they make.” Thus, those with insurance are then forced through the rigmarole of form filling and claim-sheets, obstacles designed to trip them up at every stage. A woman who failed to discover she had a “pre-existing condition”, in this case a yeast infection, is then denied the insurance claim she had paid out for.

The tentacles of the system have found fertile ground in Congress. With four times as many health lobbyists as members, representatives are handsomely rewarded for their silence and complicity. Most satisfyingly of all, Moore pins down Hillary Clinton. Hailed by some as the great liberal hope for the US, Clinton became strangely muted after receiving the second-largest health-industry campaign donations.

Sicko is Moore’s most necessary film yet and also his most expansive. In the second half of the film he travels to the UK, France and Cuba in search of alternatives. A stirring moment comes in an interview with left-wing veteran Tony Benn. What would happen if anyone tried to abolish the NHS? “There’d be a revolution” replies Benn swiftly, and his words segue into Street Fighting Man. In a film clearly targeted at an American audience, Moore cannily appeals to the consumerist mentality by emphasising what individuals get out of the welfare state. The discovery that French authorities offer a laundry service seems directed at lumbago-ridden Middle American moms. Moore relishes the fact that the only cashier in the NHS is one who reimburses low-income patients for their travel costs. The time that he uses just to reassure Americans that universal health care can work, is testimony to the prejudice against ‘socialised medicine’ inculcated by right-wing propaganda. Witness an early star turn by Ronald Reagan, the second-rate actor who became a third-rate president, warning that free health care is just a paving stone on the road to communism.

It’s only after taking a razor blade to this guff, that Moore finally mentions the thornier issue of what individuals have to put in to the system. He visits a prosperous, telegenic French couple as if to prove that funding the largesse of the state need not reduce you to begging from it. But you don’t need to look at income charts to know that they aren’t exactly average French taxpayers. A failure to adequately wrestle with funding issues is an omission in this film, but Moore’s strategy, to champion free health care to the point where taxes become an afterthought, is an effective one. In the case of a US audience notoriously suspicious of taxation it’s also a necessary one.

Moore’s penchant for attention-grabbing stunts has proved a defect in the past. Circling round Congress in a buggy, while bellowing the Patriot Act through a megaphone, was one of the many embarrassments of Fahrenheit 9/11. Leaving a photo of a young gun victim outside Charlton Heston’s house in Bowling for Columbine just seemed trite. This time Moore commanders a boat, fills it with 9/11 rescue workers, all suffering from related illnesses, and heads for Guantanamo Bay. For as he sardonically notes, the naval base provides the ‘enemy combatants’ with free health care unavailable to citizens on the mainland. It’s hard to suppress a wry smile as Moore cries from the boat, “We don’t want any more than what you are giving the evildoers!”

If Moore begins by targeting the consumerist values of the American psyche, he ends by appealing to those of citizenship. It is time for a population that so values its rescue workers to create a health system that does the same. Sicko is an unequivocal return to form and a mordant assault on those who deny these hopes.

Published in the Warwick Boar, 08/11/07


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