While watching the first third or so of Michael Moore's new healthcare documentary "Sicko," the emotional effect was most reminiscent of a very different movie I reviewed a few weeks ago: "Hostel: Part II."
Moore's thesis in his sixth film is fairly simple and straightforward: the healthcare system in this country is unacceptable and we must replace it with some form of universal healthcare perhaps based on elements of the programs of other countries. One of the tools used to make this argument is a series of HMO horror stories from both industry insiders and unhappy - very unhappy - customers.
In preparation for his documentary Moore sent out a request for such tales. Within a day he had quite a collection. I won't spoil the shocks and surprises, just as I wouldn't reveal the specific tortures or death traps in a film like "Hostel: Part II" or "Saw III." Those expecting Moore's trademark humor will be disappointed, at least with much of the film. There are several laughs and a few pranks but for the most part there's a whole lot of tragedy on display.
The second half of Moore's argument is a glimpse of how life could be. Moore first explores the Canadian, British, and French healthcare systems. Perhaps it's here where the lighter elements of the film come through. There are just as many shocks and surprises in the exploration of these other systems. This time, though, instead of feelings of horror and depression, it was hardcore jealousy.
The film's climax has gotten, oh, just a little attention. It begins with Moore meeting and interviewing several 9/11 volunteer rescue workers. These American heroes have, for various reasons, been denied healthcare for conditions they suffer directly because of their time spent at Ground Zero. So Moore does one of his trademark stunts. Where in "Bowling for Columbine" he took Columbine shooting victims to K-Mart corporate headquarters and in "Fahrenheit 9/11" he sought to convince congressmen to sign up their children for the military, this time Moore takes three boats full of sick people to try and get medical care at Guantánamo Bay. He echoes a point similar to one made by the late author/philosopher Robert Anton Wilson: why is it that in America the only two classes to be guaranteed healthcare are our two professional criminal classes? He is, of course, referring to those in prison and government.
Unfortunately, Moore and company are denied entrance to Guantánamo. So instead Moore makes a different political statement by taking his sick heroes to a Cuban hospital and pharmacy. When I first heard about this the progressive in me flinched. Associations with communism, Fidel Castro, and the Cuban government are the last thing we need, especially in a time when the failings of the Bush administration have paved the road for a Democrat to win the White House in 2008.
For those that actually see the film - in lieu of just spinning it for political purposes - Moore's point is more complex, universal, and philosophical rather than some empty-headed thumbs up for Cuba. Moore is not the "fat communist pig" that the ever-friendly conservative activist David Horowitz recently dubbed him.
"Sicko" is Moore's best film, without question. There are a few reasons for this. The primary one is its focus and simplicity. "Bowling for Columbine" and "Fahrenheit 9/11" are vastly more complex and, in a sense, somewhat sloppy, flinging about too many arguments and ideas without thoroughly nailing any of them. "Sicko" is much more narrowly focused and precise in its goals. (There's also the fact that the argument is less partisan and divisive. Who out there loves their HMO?)
The situation is somewhat comparable to the Showtime show "Penn and Teller's B*llshit!," which is kind of a libertarian, rationalist TV version of a Moore movie. Penn and Teller's strongest episodes are the ones where they narrow their targets. Their episodes on circumcision, PETA, and recycling are brilliant. When they take on general ideas such as the Bible, conspiracy theory, and college then they flounder. Moore mostly stays on track. He very briefly explores other socialized elements of Europe but wisely controls himself.
It's because of his restraint here that he's able to get his audience thinking for themselves. In all governments there are going to be some elements of socialism. There will be some degree of consensus that certain services are better left to government. In America we have socialized police, firefighters, primary education, libraries, military, museums, prisons, roads, parks, national parks, and so on. Ultimately the film's bigger, thoroughly debatable question is thus: "How much socialism should we have in government and what should be socialized?" The opposition argument is generally that capitalism and "the free market" can both deliver superior services and promote greater freedom in general.
Is that the case with healthcare in this country? "Sicko" primarily only addresses the first part of that argument through its criticism of HMOs and praise of socialized medicine. And that's fine and probably better in the long run at least for the film (since its strength lies in its narrow focus.) But the second question needs to be posed and considered.
(Warning! Warning! Political thoughts incoming! Those who demand their film reviews free of such content please take cover!)
Follow this recent train of thought I had: "You know, I'm not making much now but I could live on much less. What if, instead of working 40 hours a week and doing my journalism and novel writing on the side, I got a different job, worked less, and focused more on my writing? I'm young, don't have any debt or dependents, why not?" But I can't do that in America. Living without health insurance is akin to gambling with your life. In any other Western nation I could do that.
Most people - both left and right - would generally agree that one of the primary purposes of government is to maximize and protect freedom. "Sicko" makes a strong case that universal healthcare will contribute to that.
However, with "Sicko" we've only seen half the argument. And we can hardly deliver a verdict without hearing from the defense. After "Fahrenheit 9/11" numerous conservative counterarguments ("Fahrenhype 9/11" and "Celsius 41.11") popped up on DVD. I fully expect and hope to hear the case for our current healthcare system. In the words of our commander in chief, "Bring it on."