Tuesday, April 7, 2009
I'm sure any real film expert who stumbles upon this blog will have a coronary just reading these reviews with the knowledge that I aspire to be a critic, but if not this will surely send them over the deep end: Michael Moore is America's answer to Sergei Eisenstein. Hear me out. Eisenstein, the great editing pioneer and surely one of the five most important directors in the history of cinema, made a career out of propaganda films. Battleship Potemkin, Strike and October took real life events, twisted them to Hell and back, and presented them in rapid series of montages so effective that could turn an ardent Republican into a card-carrying Communist.
Moore works the same way (albeit with far less technical proficiency, of course): he takes a serious issue in America, gets interviews and connecting segments, promptly cuts them up to make him seem like the sole voice of sanity in a harsh conservative America, then puts it all in a blender and serves up revolution in a cup. Yes, Bowling For Columbine is so full of shit it not only insults the gun-owners it paints as bloodlust-driven animals but the victims of all the gun crimes the film backs, but didn't it make you hate Charlton Heston for about three seconds until your brain switched back on? So when Moore set his sights on the complex world of health insurance, I steered clear; Moore specializes in taking a moderately complex system and oversimplifying it. But insurance? You can't boil that down to a simple message without being condescending, so why bother?
Once again, however, I underestimated Moore's gift for rhetoric. Moore paints the American medical system as one run almost entirely by greed and inhumane business practices designed to ensure that even the insured in America cannot receive treatment. He finds parents forced to move in with their children because medical bills bankrupted them, people who have lost spouses and children, even 9/11 volunteer firemen not covered by government aid because they were not officially on state payroll. The stories are horrifying and enraging, and when a local clinic shows surveillance footage of a cab dumping out patients at USC's hospital because they couldn't keep payments up it's every bit as inflammatory as the Odessa Steps sequence.
What helps things a great deal is that, after making his films more about himself than his political topics pretty much since The Big One, Moore finally gets back to his Roger & Me method of using himself as an interviewer and someone who wants answers instead of trying to paint himself as some Average Joe stand-in and a wannabe Dylan without the music. Speaking of the latter, when Joan Baez showed up in Moore's disastrous Slacker Uprising -- yes, the same Joan Baez who made Bob Dylan, collaborated with Bob Dylan and even dated Bob Dylan -- called Moore the closest thing we have to a Dylan, I thought I'd never feel happiness again. But here, for a time at least, he stays mostly behind the camera or only on screen to ask questions as he should be.
Besides Cuba, Moore travels to our neighbors to the North as well as across the pond to England and to France to examine what happens when the commies get their socialist healthcare. Unsurprisingly, Moore leaves out any downsides and presents these countries as utopias so glorious I kept an eye out for the milk and honey. He interviews college-age kids and senior citizens who gleefully play along with Moore's Socratic irony, telling him that they don't suffer long waits in emergency rooms, nor do they ever have to pay more than a few dollars for care, and that's only when they need a boatload of medicine that runs in the hundreds in America. But Moore ignores the outrageous tax levels of these countries and the long waits for any treatment outside the E.R. Nevertheless, there's something truly wonderful about all the foreign doctors who honestly look like they can't fathom doing their job for the money or checking someone's insurance status before helping them; one British M.D. even puts to rest any fears that a doctor in such a program couldn't still be a millionaire, just not as big a one as an American.
In the final third, sadly, Moore can no longer restrain his primal need for self-promotion, and he leaps in front of the camera with vigor, dragging his favorite interviewees to Guantanamo Bay (among them some of the 9/11 volunteers) to demand they receive the same care afforded to the detainees. It's a moment of lunacy, then the gang somehow make their way out of U.S.-occupied Cuba into the country proper and receive care that may or may not be the norm. I admit, these ending moments are some of the most touching, with these doctors -- our enemy, supposedly -- giving medicine and surgeries to these poor Americans, and when a local fire department honors the 9/11 volunteers as brother firemen, I defy you not to well up.
Then Moore ruins it with one final bit: the webmaster of Moorewatch, a web site dedicated to monitoring the omissions and lies in Moore's films, announced he was shutting down the site because his wife contracted cancer and he could not afford the medical bills and the site payments. Moore admirably stands by the man's First Amendment rights, and sends the man a check for 12 grand so he can keep running the site. Unfortunately, he tells us all this while pointing out that he left his name off the check so as not to influence the man's future posts. Spot the flaw there, if you can. It's a moment of of shamelessness to cap off what had been Moore's most moving and affecting film since Roger & Me.
Nevertheless, it remains his best in years, precisely because its moments of self-centeredness are at last the exception and not the norm. It helps not to think of this -- or any of Moore's oeuvre, for that matter -- as documentaries but rather opinion pieces, and whether or not the socialized methods of other countries are the answer for the Unites States, Sicko does a magnificent job of pointing out glaring flaws in our system that must be addressed even if the model as a whole does not completely change. Sure, Moore never provoke any real change, but at least this time he provokes some thought.