Eugene Weekly : Movie Review : 7.5.07


First, Do No Harm
Say ahh to Michael Moore’s new film

SICKO: Written, Directed and Starring Michael Moore. Cinematography, Christoph Vitt. Music, Erin O’Hara. The Weinstein Company, 2007. PG-13. 113 minutes.

To his detractors, Michael Moore is the Round Mound of Sound, a man who exploits the case histories of the browbeaten for maximum shock and exposure. It wasn’t always this way. He was largely unknown following the release of Roger and Me, his devastating look at the death of Flint, Michigan, the town where Moore grew up. But Moore found his voice with Bowling for Columbine and a national following to boot, one he relied upon to support the lively but chaotic Fahrenheit 9/11. Much of the criticism that followed was politically motivated, making it irrelevant, to my mind, to his work as a filmmaker. The problem is, Moore the filmmaker often plays straight into his critics’ hands, using his camera as a virtual tissue for the tear-stained eyes of the suffering. When other directors cut away, Moore zooms in.

Moore on a search for heatlh care in England

Moore is up to his usual hijinks in Sicko, his documentary about the American health care system. Sicko is a shot of Fahrenheit with a tall chaser of Columbine: in other words, it’s a broadly-drawn attack that blue and red states can agree upon. When it works, which is more often than not, it makes you want to storm the nearest Kaiser Permanente and tear it down, brick by brick. (In one of Sicko’s most powerful moments, we hear President Nixon endorsing the concept of HMOs, which soon after became a reality. Thanks, Dick.) When Sicko doesn’t work, you wonder if Moore is stretching the truth a little, given how carefree he’s proven to be in the past. As with all of Moore’s films, Sicko can take itself too seriously; Moore is at his best when he he’s using music and humor for emphasis, something he does in Sicko only after a brooding opening sequence.

We don’t need Moore to tell us the U.S. health care system is broken. We all know, either directly or indirectly, about the rising costs, the labyrinthine paperwork and the increasing trend toward denial of payment. Moore’s genius is for putting a light to the enormous ironies that get secreted away by people in power. To give just one example from Sicko, Moore learns that prisoners at Guantanamo Bay get better health care than the 9/11 cleanup crew. Incensed, Moore travels to Cuba to investigate, taking members of the cleanup crew with him. In fact, Moore travels quite a bit in Sicko, visiting England, France and Canada — all countries with nationalized health care — where the citizens react first with laughter, then pity.

Moore isn’t content merely to examine our failing health care. Sicko touches upon child care, college tuition, student protests and the Iraq war, to varying effect. There’s an element of exploitation to Moore’s style, one that reminds me of a less gifted Sascha Baron Cohen (Borat). But what comes across in Sicko isn’t the statistical measurement of our failure. (Although learning that Cubans spend $1 on health care for every $40 dollars spent in America — with better results — was just a little dispiriting.) What comes across is the pluck and wisdom of the afflicted, especially their ongoing devotion to a country that has betrayed them. When Moore is out of the way, their stories come shining through.