Sicko | Movie Reviews + Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper
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Michael Moore (center), among our healthier contemporaries in London
  • Michael Moore (center), among our healthier contemporaries in London
 In the 17th century, during Shakespeare's ascent from Elizabethan bard to the Greatest Living Playwright in the English Language, producers of his plays routinely edited his texts to make them more appropriate for their increasingly sterile times. Sometimes, for example, they removed the Fool from King Lear, reasoning that such a character had no place in tragedy.

One can hardly call that reason. We need our Fools -- Lear certainly needed his -- to state the sobering truth with an ersatz smile.

Michael Moore, the Oscar-winning contemporary Fool, didn't leave the Bush administration laughing with his last film, Fahrenheit 9/11. Perhaps they were all suffering from untreated Gonerila. In Sicko, his gentlest, least confrontational and most straightforward film, Moore now ponders why so many people in God's country can't afford to see a doctor when something ails them. Even people with health care often don't get what they've paid for from managed-care organizations that reward their doctors and case workers for refusing tests and procedures.

"May I take a moment to ask a question that's been on my mind?" Moore says, late in the film, in a moment typical of its lean, compassionate tone. "Who are we?" This comes after he's introduced us to one dead, dying or afflicted person after another, all of them victims of health coverage denied.

A methodical film, Sicko has five chapters. First, Moore documents the underhanded methods that health-care providers use to deny you a policy or to refuse to cover your treatment if you already have one. We meet people who have suffered, and employees who have quit the industry, sick of themselves for their part in the corruption.

This part of Sicko names plenty of corporate names, but one that keeps coming up is HMO giant Kaiser Permanente. Seems the company took shape in 1971, when Richard Nixon -- heard on tape, talking with Ehrlichman -- learned that Henry Kaiser had a plan to operate for-profit hospitals, about which Nixon says, "That appeals to me."

After a comical riff on the evils and fears of emerging Socialism in America -- naturally, Ronald Reagan appears in this passage -- Moore's next three chapters take us to countries with socialized medicine: Canada, the United Kingdom and France. In each place he finds numerous Americans who have partaken of these countries' free health care with no strings attached, except perhaps for a few stitches.

He paints a portrait en rose of these countries and their systems, but rarely in his own words: Plenty of Canadian, British and French nationals praise the availability and quality of their health care. It's all very hard to argue with.

So one can only hope -- for the sake of the lives at stake in this issue -- that Moore's glosses, inaccuracies and oversights amount to little more than I could detect watching Sicko once. Early in his film, for example, he cites a study that rates the quality of American health care 37th in the world, just above Slovenia. For a moment, Moore even puts a page from the report on screen. Sure enough, the U.S. is No. 37, Slovenia is No. 38 -- and right below that, at No. 39, is Cuba.

Forget about what Moore's enemies can do with something like the latter ranking: He makes it hard for his friends to defend him. That's because in chapter five of Sicko -- the one you've all heard about, which takes up only the final 20 minutes of the two-hour film -- Moore introduces us to some people, not government employees, who volunteered at the site of the Sept. 11 attacks and who now need health care but can't get it from the U.S. government.

So he takes them to Guantanamo Bay, where alleged al-Qaeda enemy combatants get excellent health care. From a boat in the ocean, Moore shouts through a bullhorn, asking to enter Gitmo. When sirens go off, he turns the boat around. But then he visits Cuba itself, where (for his cameras) doctors provide excellent care to his tag-alongs, and where Cuban people praise their country's No. 39 medical system.

Sicko finally offers the simplest and most obvious solution to the problems that it raises: If Americans are willing to buy other quality products from foreign countries, why not try manufacturing, here in the U.S., their free, government-funded health-care systems?

Of course, the countries to which he compares us have much smaller populations and, in general, healthier lifestyles (and longer life spans, according to statistics he quotes). They're also not a bunch of fat greedy pigs and liars like we are, and they have a different relationship with government.

As a Frenchman notes, in America we fear our government, while in France the government fears the people. A former member of the British Parliament astutely says, "People in debt become hopeless, and hopeless people don't vote." Cut to a blathering George W. Bush admiring a woman for holding down three jobs, and seeing no irony in the fact that she needs to. The woman, respectful of The President, does nothing to put him in his place (which is: our employee).

Day after day, fools (small "f") like Bill O'Reilly growl on and on about the "culture war" and how "secular humanists" can only "hate America" and put it down. Well, how about this: By saying that a national health-care system can't work, it's the O'Reilly-esque culture warriors who belittle the ingenuity and humanity of the American people. And by tolerating the corruption and indifference of health-care providers -- as well as the unavailability of basic health care for so many working people -- these wrong-wing warriors are performing the most secular act of all: selfishness.

Say what you will about Moore and Sicko, he's hit a nail on the head. He'd just better not miss the target and injure himself, or he may have to go to Cuba for a Band-Aid.

Starts Fri., June 29.

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