Once upon a time in America - specifically Flint, Michigan - an average Joe saw his town economically crippled by the corporate powers that be. So he made a documentary, which became an unlikely hit. Then he made a few more movies, did a TV show and wrote several best-selling books. But this guy was still just like you and me, see? Sure, our average joe won an Oscar and a Palme d’Or, and his controversial screed against the current President of the United States remains the highest-grossing nonfiction film of all time. Let’s not get bogged down in technicalities or tax brackets, he’d probably say. I’m jes’ plain folk, same as you guys.
It takes a leap of faith to think that Michael Moore, celebrity man of the people and media muckraker, can maintain a cult of personality based on aggressive ordinariness. But it’s also obvious that for all of the manufactured Moore-isms he relies on (the slovenly stubble and baseball cap, the faux-naive narration, an incredulity that utopia isn’t just a MoveOn.org e-mail away), his outrage is genuine. That fury at the blasé attitudes of bureaucrats profiting from common people greased his solidarity with the fed-up suburbanites and small-town occupants in Bowling for Columbine (2002) and Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), and it’s exactly what makes his new work, Sicko, equally vital. If Moore is using his aw-shucks attitude to articulate a collective anger with such far-reaching effectiveness, tolerating his shtick is the least we can do.
When you’ve just taken on the most crony-filled federal government in US history, what do you do for a follow-up? Go after the equally corrupt world of corporate health care. Sicko traces America’s horrific treatment of its ill and infirm using the standard Moore modus operandi. Capsule histories detail how Hillary Clinton’s plan for universal coverage was killed in Congress and how we have Richard Nixon to thank for Edgar Kaiser’s empire. Humorous digs at the ways insurance companies give consumers the shaft, such as the looong Star Wars scroll of preexisting qualifications that spell instant rejection, provide comic relief. The use of irony that’s made the filmmaker the missing link between Emile de Antonio and The Daily Show suffuses everything from his foreign travels (more on those in a second) to the “communist” infiltration of America via socialized police forces and public education.
And like Lila Lipscomb, the mother who provides Fahrenheit 9/11’s emotional core, the real “stars” of Sicko are the everyday people who recount their health-care horror stories. An uninsured man is told that it will cost him $12,000 to have his shorn middle digit reattached. A car-accident victim was handed a $60,000 bill because she wasn’t conscious to authorize medical care. One woman’s husband was denied an expensive operation and then passed away; another recalls how her feverish toddler was turned away from a hospital that wasn’t covered by her HMO plan. The child died several hours later. Moore allows the nightmarish tales of these victims to unfold mostly without editorial comment, and it’s a smart move. You want to leave the cinema and storm your local Blue Shield office.
The director himself remains offscreen until roughly an hour in, and not coincidentally, that’s the point where the journalistic aspect of Sicko gets dodgy. Having held to a less-is-Moore aesthetic for its damning first half, the doc predictably shifts into self-righteous gonzo gear: Behold the firsthand health-care wonders of Canada, Britain, France and - brace yourself - Cuba. Sneaking a number of sick 9/11 volunteers into the land of the bearded Commie bogeyman for quality treatment does play like the ultimate “America, you got punked!” moment. But I wonder what the Cubans who’ve suffered human-rights violations under Castro’s regime would say about the country’s “sterling” industry, or how the underclasses of France’s banlieues feel about the price tags attached to the country’s more extensive plans. And seriously, was Moore unable to find a single Canadian who wasn’t gung ho about socialized medicine? The lack of opposing viewpoints is monumentally frustrating, and you’re reminded that in Moore’s world, one-sided polemics trump three-dimensional examinations.
These weak points aren’t enough to nullify the extraordinary rhetorical power of Sicko, or the fact that our nation needs to remove class structures from the public-health arena. But if you’re going to spend two hours making a point and expect your audience to start facilitating real change outside the theater, you need to offer more than knowing snickers. A real average joe can get away with just holding court. An artist tackling a life-or-death subject should take his outrage and deliver something with a little more discipline.
Sicko opens Thursday 24 at Broadway cinemas.
From Time Out New York