Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Michael Moore Depresses Another Viewer With SiCKO, A Worthwhile Documentary (We Wish Wasn't)!

The Good: Generally well-presented, Funny, Heartwrenching, Good DVD bonuses
The Bad: Doesn't nail a few key arguments he begins
The Basics: SiCKO takes on the dismal state of the United States insurance system by simply exploring it and contrasting it with nations that have universal health care.

It's no secret to those who read my reviews that I generally like Michael Moore and his cinematic works. Fahrenheit 9/11 remains possibly the best documentary I have ever seen on film. The truth is, I feel like a bad liberal; I did not go see his follow-up, SiCKO when it was out in the theaters. To be fair to my bleeding heart, it did not come within twenty miles of the backwoods where I live, but I could have made more of an effort to get out and find where it was playing. So, when it appeared on DVD, I did rush out to pick it up and give it a pretty thorough spin.

Wow. Dang.

With SiCKO, Moore takes on the United States system of health care, with insurance companies being motivated by profit instead of care. His objective is achieved most effectively by simply presenting other models of health care, universal health care, in Great Britain, France, Canada and Cuba. Moore simply presents the other systems, with little commentary, and allows the disparities in care speak for themselves.

SiCKO is not about the uninsured, which is perhaps the most deceptively harsh aspect of the film. Opening the film with two people who had to pay out of pocket for medical procedures like reattaching fingers and seeing doctors, Moore quickly dispenses with the uninsured in the United States the same way the government does; he declares he is not going to deal with them. This makes his argument incredibly effective as all of the cases that follow are people who have insurance and ought to - one thinks - be covered for their ailments and conditions.

Over the course of two hours, Moore documents the pathetic state of health care in the United States by illustrating how people in the United States who are insured are kept from receiving health care. He interviews people who had insurance who were denied payments, like a woman who was in a car accident and was taken, unconscious, from the site of the accident to the hospital in an ambulance whose ride was not covered by the insurance company because it was not preapproved. He interviews people from the industry who know how things work because they are the executors of the will of the insurance companies; screeners who keep people from getting insurance and investigators whose sole job it is to comb through records of those who have claims paid out to find ways to get the money back or to knock those insured people off their plans.

Perhaps the most damning moment in the film is also the most subtle. In a clip from a Congressional hearing on health care, a medical professional admits that when she denied care and that resulted in a death, she was promoted and never held accountable. What is even more damning about the clip than her testimony is this; the seats are not filled on the panel. No reviewer I've read has noted that at a major Congressional inquiry of health care in the United States where a medical worker admits their promotions were based on denying claims and killing a patient the Congressional panel couldn't even be bothered to show up with its full attendance! The clip clearly illustrates the apathy of Congressional members or the way they were bought off in a way that the rest of the film does not.

It's astonishing and heartbreaking.

The rest of the film simply illustrates working models of universal health care systems and the level of care that patients receive in them as well as the type of compensation doctors receive. Moore simply debunks all of the rumors surrounding universal health care and the nations that have it by showing what works about them. I recall feeling some outrage recently when I read Ralph Reed's book Politically Incorrect: The Emerging Faith Factor In American Politics (reviewed here!) when he proudly wrote about the Christian Coalition exerting its influence to squash the efforts to create universal health care in the United States. Watching SiCKO is enough to make me want to go kick him in the shins (and I'm a pacifist!); hearing the stories of death, agony and disfigurement of Americans is terrible when one considers that something - even a system that initially fails - is better than nothing. As someone who was swept aside by Moore and the government (I'm entirely uninsured, so there's my bias, I suppose) watching a film like SiCKO is depressing beyond reason.

But the thing is, it's not as depressing as it ought to be. Michael Moore, who the conservative elements want to decry as a rabble-rouser and the ultimate evil, pulls his punches severely in SiCKO. Moore opens the door to the profits of health care companies by flashing the salaries of many of the CEOs of health insurance companies on screen, but he doesn't nail it home. He does not illustrate overall profits of the health insurance companies or the accumulated wealth of the CEOs. Moreover, he fails to tie such concepts to the concepts he does illustrate, like how much the health care industry donates to the campaigns of U.S. Congresspeople. So, for example, Moore fails to explore the idea that the billions of dollars made by the insurance companies and the millions of dollars they pay their CEOs and pay into campaigns for electing officials obscure the real numbers; the salaries and campaign contributions are expenses which are taken out of the profits; which means that the cash value of the industry is vastly higher than it initially appears.

So, while SiCKO might create a healthy outrage in the United States about the dismal state of our healthcare and the insurance industry, the film could easily have been more inflammatory and still been as informative and truthful. The other serious problem with the film is that Moore opens the door to arguments that he does not follow up on. The most notable of these is how the nations that have universal health care pay for it. When exploring France, Moore quips that they pay for the health care because the country is "drowning in taxes," which is the mantra used by the elements in the U.S. government to keep the nation from developing our own health care plan. The problem is, Moore does not debunk that; he makes the comment, but does not illustrate what the tax burden is. So, he presents a doctor living in London (for example) who makes approximately $200,000 a year, but he does not get into what kind of taxes he pays.

In some ways, I suppose, the argument may not need to be made. Moore observes through his interviewees that Great Britain, following World War II instituted universal health care because if there was money to kill people, there ought to be money to save them. And that's one of the moments that works amazingly well in the film.

As well as potentially outraging viewers, SiCKO is bound to enlighten and entertain viewers. When Moore packs up Americans to go to Cuba to try to get health care at Guantanamo Bay, the film cuts to a message about Homeland Security not allowing them to show how they actually got to Cuba. It's actually a very funny cutaway and it comes at a point in the film when it seems like the movie will be oppressively serious, without any flavor. Indeed, it comes at a moment shortly after the September 11 attacks are mentioned and I groaned, fearing the film would take an irrelevant turn as Bowling For Columbine did when it referenced the attacks. Instead, Moore rightly mixes humor and the simple exposure that those who are revered one moment are silently set aside at another. Today's heroes are tomorrow's line item budget veto. And Moore illustrates that he thinks that is wrong and quietly debunks the entire idea that the U.S. cannot afford universal health care by illustrating that the detainees at Guantanamo Bay receive it.

Indeed, this is another area Moore simply does not explore. Health care is not treated as a matter of national security; the military treats detainees, but no similar program exists for the general populace. If it seems I am spending so much time on what Moore neglects, it is because the film is a very effective documentary. It documents. It documents the state of insurance companies and the alternatives in universal health care. And it does that remarkably well and with little postulating and less commentary. Moore lets the facts speak for themselves.

SiCKO on DVD has some interesting featurettes, most notably the ones that focus on actions taken as a result of the film. Moore travels to Washington, D.C. with some of the people featured in the film to help lobby for H.R. 676, a bill that would provide universal health care in the United States. The featurettes are interesting and offer only a little bit of repetition for what is already in the film, utilizing the medium well.

The only question now is, will it be effective? If you haven't seen it, it's time to. And it is time to act, before another life is lost because it was more profitable than saving it.

For other documentaries by Michael Moore, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
Capitalism: A Love Story
Fahrenheit 9/11
Bowling For Columbine
The Big One
Roger & Me


For other movie reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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