During the opening moments of Michael Moore’s “what the hell is wrong with American health care” documentary, as the voice of the writer/director/gadfly began wafting through the theater speakers, I was finally able to come to terms with Moore’s universe. In the soothing sing-song tones one usually associates with bedtime stories, accompanied by pleasant string music, Moore related the stories of a few of the 50 million uninsured Americans forced to make horrible choices—which severed finger to re-attach, or whether to self-suture after an accident. Where for years I’d grumbled about Moore’s journalism of convenience, suddenly I realized I’d been coming at him all wrong. Here was documentary filmmaking not as journalistic enterprise, but as agitprop liberal tone poem.
Sicko is already under fire by Moore’s political opponents for all the usual reasons. Like Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11 before it, Sicko’s facts and agendas are held under a microscope, where they may or may not hold up to the scrutiny. This is also, as it turns out, desperately beside the point. Reasoned, fact-driven argument appears here almost incidentally. Moore wants to hit you not where you think, but where you feel—and he’ll do whatever it takes to accomplish that goal.
So Moore takes us on a disturbing journey through the brutal, heartless world of the American health care system, with an eye to getting us good and angry. He chastises lawmakers beholden to insurance-industry lobbyists for their refusal to tackle the issue in a meaningful way—including Hillary Clinton, who effected an about-face after prominently promoting nationalized health care in the 1990s. He shares the stories of former insurance industry employees whose pennywise tactics cost people their lives. And he presents anecdote after heart-rending anecdote of men and women whose lives have been shattered by refusals of coverage or the inability to get coverage at all.
It’s the Moore way, and at times it’s almost laughably shameless. There isn’t a tale that he doesn’t end with a shot of someone bursting into tears, as though we somehow wouldn’t otherwise understand the grief of a too-young widow or a bankrupt senior. When he presents the story of a woman whose 18-month-old daughter died after being refused treatment at an out-of-network hospital, he films her in a public park, watching other children play on the swings.
Yet as clumsily as he goes about it, Moore accomplishes what he sets out to do: give a human face to the corporate decision-making that has made most Americans scared to death of what might happen to them in the event of a personal health crisis. This is not a position paper; it’s a cry for help. After watching Sicko, you may not know a whole lot more detail about America’s healthcare mess than you did before. You will, however, feel that something is very, very wrong—and maybe, as a baby step, that’s enough.