'Sicko': Michael Moore's Anemic Checkup

Michael Moore's documentary about U.S. health care extols France's system but overlooks the vast difference in population size.
Michael Moore's documentary about U.S. health care extols France's system but overlooks the vast difference in population size. (The Weinstein Co.)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
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 that system, which is 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. He's not even above looking hound-eyed into the camera as he stands on a Venetian bridge as a gondola scoots by underneath him and intoning, "We're all in the same boat."

We may be, but here's the problem: He never tells us which boat. 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 (one hospital secretly dumps rejected patients on the street outside a homeless shelter) and the like.

And just when you think you're about to leap off into what in this business we call "the nut 'graph," meaning the, you know, content, he changes thrusts. 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." He 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.

His anecdotes draw pointed contrasts with Europe, as he returns to France and England as examples of superb health-care systems, but the comparisons are never put in any kind of context. France and the United Kingdom each has a population of around 60 million, a fifth of America's 300 million. Is it easier to administer a program so much smaller? I don't know, but I'm not investigating health care; he is, he should and he doesn't.

He also spends a great deal of time interviewing both the European beneficiaries of the system and, most particularly, the doctors, to make a point that even in socialized medical systems, doctors can still live the high life. This is like a little coded valentine to surgeons who seem to fear government-administered medicine the most; he seems to be saying, "Hey, guys, even if Hillary takes over, you still get to keep the Cadillacs and the country club memberships." It's a peculiar side trip.

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 and spent 48 days straight in that hell, breathing in the ash and gas and petrochems and melted polyurethanes that filled that rancid air, become our point-of-view characters in the film. They all seem like good Joes (or Jolinas) who gave it up for the cremated victims of that day five Septembers ago and now would like nothing more than to breathe again without pain.

But of course there's health care, there's bureaucracy and where there's b, there's s, no? Forms are lost, claims aren't filled, diagnoses are challenged. Moore seems shocked to discover that some insurance companies offer incentives to employees -- doctors and investigators -- who turn down claims. But absent that, would the system work if everybody got what they wanted when they wanted it and there was no adjudication, no prioritizing? What would those economic consequences yield? The question goes unanswered because it goes unasked.

He seems to think utopia is a collective wish away. He seems to think it would just be better if it were all free. Except: Nothing is free. Somebody has to pay for everything. It may not be the end user (upon whom Moore focuses exclusively) but somewhere, somehow, somebody has to pay for the nurse's aides, those purple latex gloves, the bandages, the hideous green smocks and hair-hiders and, of course, the various implements for jabbing, slicing and otherwise penetrating your trembly body.

Some of his stunts don't work out with nearly the comic explosiveness he seems to think they might. In one, for example, he takes his Sept. 11 rescue workers to the U.S. naval base at Cuba's Guantanamo Bay, where, by archival film, he's established that the medical care for the incarcerated alleged terrorists is quite high, much higher than it's been for his Sicko Four. (He ignores the point that if it wasn't, the media would raise holy hell.) He approaches the heavily guarded installation by small boat at sea and, pitching and churning in the waters of the bay, demands "better medical care for these American heroes than they can get at home!" The Navy is not amused. Someone pushes a siren button, and before the PT boats can be launched and the poor blue collar schlumps sitting there looking seasick are forced to go into a repel-boarders drill, Moore wisely turns tail. It's just sort of stupid.

But it's meant to set up the capital-I irony that in Dr. Castro's paradise, the rescue workers, having traveled up the island to Havana, are immediately taken into the finest of medical facilities, given free drugs and intensive care, and their health is rapidly improved by the TLC and the attention. What was the name of that facility? Oh, yeah, Potemkin Village Clinic for Abused Heroes of Fascist America, or some such. That's my little joke; the point is, what assurance is there that this care wasn't staged entirely for Moore's friendly cameras by the not-dumb apparatchiks of Cuba's excellent intelligence and propaganda service?

That said, 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.

Someone has got to fix it, or make it fairer, negotiate the unbelievably complex issues and balance sound economic sense with fair play. America, fix your boo-boo. As for Moore, it can only be said: Filmmaker, heal thyself!

Sicko (113 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for brief strong language.

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