Bigmouth Strikes Again

1 November 2007

Michael Moore, enemy of corporations, gun-owners and anything generally right-wing, has found a new bug-bear for his latest film. Surprisingly, his attack on the American health system (or, rather, lack thereof) is probably his best film yet. Despite the fact that it contains pretty much all the political ingredients (the wrongs of the Republicans and corporations, people in Flint, Michigan being screwed) that have made his previous films somewhat irritating polemics, Sicko is a remarkably mature and well-grounded documentary.

The main reason for this is most evident in the first half, which focuses purely on the way that healthcare is distributed in America. Moore tells us at the very beginning that he’s not even going to talk about people without health insurance – we already know their story. Instead he talks about the people who should be covered by the system and sets out to expose this system as being fundamentally unfair and immoral. While Moore could have quite easily messed this up by turning the issue into a mawkish polemic, he makes a very wise, if utterly unexpected, choice and lets his subjects talk for themselves. The first half of Sicko is remarkable because of the conspicuous absence of its maker – it’s probably the first film made by Michael Moore that isn’t about himself.

The story that is set out is powerful and shocking, and Moore deserves credit for crafting the story so brilliantly. The stories of how insurance companies attempt to make their customers pay for ambulance rides and try to get of any type of operation do just make you think, “this is really just very wrong”.

Moore utterly destroys the myth that America has the world’s best health system for those with insurance. Rather than a fully modern system that provides patients with all the treatment they need, we hear of people being denied operations because a brain tumour isn’t “life-threatening”, or because bone marrow replacement is an “experimental” treatment for cancer. In both of the cases mentioned, the patients died. By allowing the relatives and survivors to tell their stories, Moore compiles a formidable and moving body of evidence. Crucially, it’s a systematic piece of film-making as well, in that he avoids the stunts and playful graphics that made it difficult to take his other films seriously. Probably the greatest praise that can be given to the first part is that you will admire it even if you don’t agree with Moore’s political principles.

That, unfortunately, cannot really be said for the second half, which lets the film down a little bit. While Moore’s comparison of the NHS with America is illuminating, he over does things a bit and perhaps exaggerates his own ignorance. In particular, his feigned disbelief at the fact that no-one is paying for treatment is a little bit over the top, although having lots of British people laugh at him when he asks where to pay is quite amusing. You will enjoy the comparison between America and Britain and France a lot if, like me, you think that the NHS is much better than most people think and you agree with Moore’s broad principles. If not, you might find his unqualified praise of France, in particular, a little grating. On the other hand, it is a neat comparison that he makes and this section also has an appearance from Tony Benn, who is always entertaining.

It’s the very last section that really spoilt things for me though. Pretending that the NHS and the French government are perfect I can handle, but talking up Cuba’s healthcare is a step too far. It is true that Cuba’s public health system is fairer and better than America’s, but it’s also true that Cuba shoots dissidents. Something just tells me that those two facts have to be placed alongside each other. Moore’s final stunt here, taking Ground Zero rescue workers to Cuba for treatment, strikes one as a little exploitative and adds nothing to the film, except an extra slice of controversy.

Without it, Sicko would probably make less of a ripple at the box office and in American politics, but it would also be a great, rather than merely good film.