Michael Moore has a knack for devising compelling theses on the state of American society and its maladies, but unfortunately he all too often undermines them with his style of argument—that is, his style of filmmaking. It’s not his snarky tone, which admittedly is often quite funny, but his regrettable habit of falling into gimmicky set pieces and cheaply earned sentimentality. In short, he is, disappointingly, a chronic oversimplifier. In Sicko, Moore does a commendable job of avoiding many of these shortcomings for a chunk of the film’s running time, but he continually slips as the film progresses until, by the last half hour, he has given in to his worst impulses—egotism, exploitation and disingenuousness.
Rather than focus on the few dozen million Americans who lack health insurance, Moore’s film surprisingly, at least initially, focuses on the 200+ million who do, and in the process reveals a callous, profit-driven insurance system without conscience, one that rewards medical professionals for denying potentially life-saving procedures to those that need them. Moore also spends a little time, though not enough, establishing the troubling connections between the executive & legislative branches and the health insurance industry in an effort to show how the industry sustains such misanthropic policies. (Moore lets Hillary Clinton off the hook a little too easily for her universal coverage fiasco while first lady, but nails her when he notes that today she comes in second among Senators with the highest amount of contributions from insurance companies.)
There are a few slips into mawkishness—Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” played over the damning congressional testimony of a healthcare executive is one of the most ridiculous—but Moore balances it with some arguably effective anecdotal journalism, mostly in the form American HMO horror stories, while wisely keeping his controversial self out of the frame. (He serves as narrator and off-screen interviewer.) At least, anyway, until the film packs up and visits foreign countries to see how (well) socialized medicine works in Canada, England and France, where Moore walks around, on-camera, with a faux-naivete that makes him look shallow with fawning adoration. Scott Tobias breaks down the typical exchanges: “Moore: ‘So how much are you paying for [this incredibly expensive procedure]?’ Patient: ‘Nothing.’ Moore: ‘Really?! Wow!’”
In the end, if you can judge a society by the way it treats its least-fortunate, as Moore suggests, then, despite its individuals’ propensity for charity and generosity, our culture as a whole gets low, low marks. But however righteous Moore’s position might be—and as one of the uninsured Americans, I’m on his side—his argument is weak; he counters conservatives’ arguments against government-run healthcare, and backs up his own reasons for it, with anecdotes, but anecdotal rebuttal or support aren’t particularly strong forms of argument. Surely a member of the opposing camp could come up with a similar string of anecdotes to support their position and tear down Moore’s?
You get the feeling that Moore is cherry-picking his supporting examples, and the film is so easy to take issue with at so many points that it’s more likely to inspire skepticism and divisiveness than it is to build a consensus around such a seemingly self-evident principle: that Americans need a healthcare system for all that serves people over profit. In his refusal to fairly address his opponents and the shortcomings of the foreign systems he upholds as ideals, or to delve more deeply into the cultural roots of the issue he examines, Moore is bound only to draw ire from his ideological opponents and laurels from his supporters. That is, in the end, Moore simply stokes an already-raging conflict between opposing camps; instead of solving the problem or draw attention to a pressing issue, he only raises his own profile.
An interview with an Englishman briefly provides the essential context for why Americans are abused by the for-profit health industry: helpless people, like the sick and bankrupted, don’t vote, and educated, healthy and confident people are harder to govern that the sick, ignorant and fearful. An American expat in France puts it this way: in France, the government fears the people; in America, the people fear the government.
But such moments of revelation are too far and few between in Sicko; Moore prefers, in the end, to deal in stunts: after laying out a terrible irony—that terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay receive full health-care while 9/11 volunteer rescue workers get none—Moore gets a bunch of the latter on boats in Florida and sails them down to Cuba. It’s, at best, sappy—especially a long sequence in which Cuban firefighters hug their American counterparts—and at worst, well, Michael Moore’s typically insufferable shtick. Moore wraps the movie in a nutshell at the end, when he boasts of anonymously donating several thousand dollars to one of his fiercest critics when he can no longer keep his website up because, ironically, he’s a victim of the American healthcare system. Those who brag about their anonymous donations in major feature films expose themselves, with little comment necessary, as far more egomaniacal than altruistic.