‘Give it to me straight, doc!’

Michael Moore delivers the bad news about America’s health care system

The argument usually goes that the right has Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Bill O'Reilly, Michael Savage, etc., etc., and the left has Al Franken, Keith Olbermann and Michael Moore. Now, there's a case to be made for Franken and Olbermann but for Moore, not so much.

Though his politics are unmistakably left, the documentarian's targets are almost exclusively the powerful and his work is fueled by optimism rather than cynicism. That last comment is hard to swallow for many who bristle at his manipulative tactics, but the truth is Moore, like many muckrakers before him, tirelessly defends the little guy while speaking truth to power. His eternal hopefulness is that America, when confronted with the truth, will do what's necessary to change things for the better.

No place is this sentiment more clear than his latest documentary, Sicko. Heartfelt, entertaining and often eye-opening, this blistering but scattershot portrait of the corrupt, cruel and crazy U.S. health care system demonstrates the obscene challenges for those seeking basic health coverage while presenting an engaging argument in favor of universal health care.

As Moore makes clear in his opening, Sicko isn't training its sights on the policies that have left 50 million Americans uninsured but rather on the many who dutifully pay their premiums each month only to enter a bureaucratic hell of insurance pre-approvals, denials of care and contractual "gotchas." Whether it's the unconscious car accident victim who was told her ambulance ride wasn't pre-approved or the woman denied care because she didn't disclose a common yeast infection many years earlier, these Kafkaesque scenarios earn both our disgust and uncomfortable laughter in equal doses.

Smartly, Moore keeps himself offscreen for Sicko's first 40 minutes, letting ordinary Americans relate how they or family members have been abused, cheated and even killed by a system that puts profits before care. In fact, in one of the film's more revelatory moments, Moore plays a tape recording of Richard Nixon cutting the deal that allows Edgar Kaiser to systematically provide less health care for more money. More damning is Nixon's cynical press conference the very next day, heralding the policy as a path to universal health coverage.

Worse, we're introduced to physicians who are paid big bucks to concoct reasons to deny large claims — labeling a procedure experimental is a popular choice — and bean counters who comb through policy applications and medical records to find mistakes they can call fraud.

Having demonstrated the profound failings of our system, Sicko then heads to Canada, England, France and Cuba to see how their methods fare in comparison and ends up debunking many of the partisan myths about "socialized medicine." With more than a bit of irony, he goes after claims about the evils of socialism by demonstrating how Americans benefit every day from "socialized" institutions like police stations, fire departments, libraries, schools and post offices. While it's fair to say Moore presents an overly rosy view of the foreign health care systems, he asks a profoundly important question: "If they can do it, why can't we?"

The film comes close to an answer in an interview with a former member of the British Parliament, Tony Benn. Benn claims that the UK overhauled health care in response to the devastation of World War II. Bankrupt and demoralized, the country's leaders saw a commitment to socialized care as demonstration of unity and compassion. Though I'm paraphrasing, the rationale was that Britain should invest at least as much in the well-being of its citizens as it did in the killing of enemies.

In contrast, Moore suggests that the U.S. government refused such a commitment out of communist paranoia and a desire to maintain power. Benn posits that democracy works best when governments fear their people rather than the other way around. This is why we see regular mass demonstrations in England and France while many Americans are either too afraid or complacent to protest their government's most egregious offenses. It's this commentary that elevates Sicko past Moore's trademark populist shenanigans and into the realm of serious discourse.

Unfortunately, Moore is still his own worst enemy. Too often he asks questions he clearly knows the answer to and engages in questionable theatrics. The worst of these is when he brings forsaken 9-11 responders to Cuba for care the U.S. has shamefully refused to provide. While his bigger point about how we treat our heroes is well taken, the stunt is shamelessly crass. Given how important and insightful much of Sicko is, it's frustrating to see the filmmaker provide his critics with such obvious ammunition.

Though the partisan will dismiss Moore's film as more left-wing propaganda, there's no denying the endlessly heartbreaking examples of American citizens brutally abused by our country's health care system. When Canadians feel obliged to take out insurance because they fear they'll end up caught in our system, you know something is seriously wrong. If only for the conversations and thought it'll provoke, Moore's latest is essential viewing and not to be missed.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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