“Bowling for Columbine” and “Fahrenheit 911,” Michael Moore’s last two provocations disguised as “documentaries,” were entertaining (and infuriating) because they took on emotional issues — guns, and the Bush administration’s criminal incompetence — that genuinely have two sides to the ongoing story. As demonstrated by the result of our last presidential election, millions of Americans don’t share the same opinion of George W. Bush, the so-called “war on terror,” or, for that matter, private gun ownership, as Michael Moore and his lefty cronies. These decent folk from all precincts of our country, whose only moral failing is their misapprehension of “the facts,” think Moore is quite wrong about almost everything, just as he and the people who embrace his ideas think the NRA and the Republican Party are quite wrong about almost everything. Thus, a heated argument is born.
Moore certainly knows how to construct a compelling cinematic case. Whatever he lacks in logic, ethics, or intelligence, he more than makes up for with passion, humor, and a propagandist’s fine sense of catalytic imagery. That’s why his films are fun. And why they have people who agree with him saying “Amen, brother!” and those who disagree saying, “What an asshole!”
The problem with Moore’s new film is that there’s no argument. “Sicko” is meant as a damning indictment of the American health care system. But how can you indict something that has already been tried and proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt? Aside from the .001% of Americans who make their fortune off the inefficiencies and incompetencies of our health industry — the insurance company executives, the drug firms, the lobbyists who represent them — is there anyone who thinks health care in America is just dandy?
Lacking a real fight, Moore must invent one.
Instead of carefully examining the complicated issues that affect all of us, both insured and un-insured, Moore dedicates himself to childish set-pieces — a guy sewing his own stitches; surveillance footage of a demented hospital patient being dumped on L.A.’s Skid Row; a crew of expatriate Americans explaining how little they pay (out of pocket) for medical care in France — that are meant to demonstrate one of two things: how bad America’s health care system is, and how great it is in other countries. Given what we all know about how awfully America fails its ill (and not yet ill) citizens, the evidence for Bad America is plentiful and obvious. It’s the second component of “Sicko” — the bits that are meant to celebrate the socialized systems in places like France and Canada — where Moore squanders whatever shreds of credibility he used to have, even in the eyes of people who agree with him. His presentation of Cuba, for instance, not as a social disaster, a depressing miasma of military domination and institutionalized abrogation of civil liberties, but as a rosy paradise where there’s a pharmacy, doctor’s office and hospital on nearly every corner — and it’s all free! — is wickedly dishonest. Chartering a boat from Miami to take 9/11 rescue workers for (free) medical care at Guantanamo Bay, where, to no one’s surprise, they are turned away for security reasons, and then to a local Cuban clinic, where, to no one’s surprise, they are treated carefully and respectfully (for free) is a sophomoric stunt, not filmmaking. The entire spectacle is staged for the benefit of the approving choir; the really tough questions never get asked. Everyone can go home congratulating himself for being on the morally superior side of an important social issue. It’s as though “Sicko” were written and directed by a teenager in thrall to the power of sedition, not an intelligent provocateur with mighty villains to expose.
The sophomoric tone is abetted by Moore’s presence in the voiceover (where he asks quasi-troubling rhetorical questions), off-camera (where he asks quasi-rhetorical questions that elicit troubling answers), and on-camera (where, in all his obese glory, he inserts himself into the frame, mostly so he can be photographed shaking his head in quasi-dismay). Health care is a serious problem that needs serious thinking. Moore settles for a shallow gloss riddled with easy-to-refute errors. (No doubt some Righty Website is already compiling an exhaustive list.) The leaps of logic and the missing pieces of narrative come so quickly and consistently that I could barely keep up with the torrent of mistakes. For those of us who believe a Universal or Single-Payer system warrants intense consideration, Moore’s preposterous reduction of the debate to a bunch of awkwardly staged skits does us all a disservice.
In nearly every scene, I found myself saying, “Yes, but what about…?” The “yes” part is easy for Moore. It’s the “but what about” that he doesn’t seem to be able to ask. Perhaps some day someone more concerned with ideas and less obsessed with self-aggrandizement — like, say, Errol Morris — will make a film that intelligently explores our options. Until then, the .001% of people who want the mess to remain just as it is will be able to point to “Sicko” and claim it’s all a big, easily misunderstood joke.