'Sicko': Get a Second Opinion

Friday, June 29, 2007

Ladies and gentlemen, I think we can agree on two things: The American health-care system is busted and Michael Moore is not the guy to fix it. His "Sicko," an investigation and indictment of a system choking on paperwork, greed, bad policy and countervailing goals, turns out to be a fuzzy, toothless collection of anecdotes, a few stunts and a bromide-rich conclusion.

The problem: He never goes for the big picture. He has some fun (and gives some fun) with what might be called inciting incidents -- metaphorical examples, up-close-and-personals with the aggrieved, some muckraking and the like. In the end, it's as if he's afraid of losing his audiences with charts, numbers and assessments from neutral sources, unlike the similar techniques used by Al Gore in "An Inconvenient Truth." Moore never interviews actual veterans of the system: doctors, nurses, administrators -- only the victims.

Thus we get a bottom-up, not a top-down or a full-frontal view of the creaking system. The film progresses from anecdote to anecdote along predictable lines: American health coverage = BAD, European health coverage = GOOD. He leaves out the boring parts, forgetting that as far as policy-intense health-care issues are concerned, the only things that matter are the boring parts.

The anecdotes are the best parts of the film; Moore has an empathetic gift, and he's able to draw eloquent tales of anguish and a sense of abandonment among blue-collar folks who aren't used to complaining out loud about the tough breaks they've caught. Four volunteers who rushed to the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, and breathed in the ash and gas and petrochems and melted polyurethanes that filled the rancid air, become our point-of-view characters in the film.

The movie is partially redeemed, I would say, by Moore's own wit and class: He is a funny guy; who knew he was a noble one, too? The nobility comes in toward the end when he details his own anonymous -- well, it's not anonymous now -- contribution of $12,000 to a fellow whose wife could not get coverage and whose expenses were breaking him financially so he could not keep up his Web site, which basically consisted of screeds meant to destroy Michael Moore. Extremely decent move, guy. Moore asks why a man should be forced to choose between paying for his wife's cancer treatments or destroying Michael Moore. Good question.

-- Stephen Hunter

Sicko PG-13, 113 minutes Contains brief strong language. Area theaters.

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