June 23, 2007

SiCKO (06/23/07)

Lettergrade: A-

I was in high school when a friend made me watch Roger & Me, Michael Moore's first movie which depicted the effects of General Motors' decision to close its factory in Moore's home town of Flint, Michigan. I can honestly say it became one of the most influential films of my youth. I was simply amazed by what Moore was able to pull off: during the film I felt angry, I felt deep empathy and sadness, it made me realize that I needed to educate myself and read the news... and of course at times it was very funny. I understood immediately (and had a lot of affection for) what Moore was trying to do. At the risk of repeating myself, I'll mention my former writing instructor's contention that using humor to tell a grim story is an excellent way to get people to listen to what you've got to say.

These days, of course, Moore needs no introduction. After several films, two TV series, a slew of books, an immensely popular website, and legions of both supporters and detractors, Moore is about as public as it gets. His new picture, SiCKO centers around the American health care system and contrasts it with that of other nations. Like his previous movies (Bowling For Columbine in particular), the film is structured as a collection of vignettes that all deal with social issues loosely surrounding the same subject. SiCKO is actually a little less scattershot than his previous two movies, focusing largely on insurance company horror stories, and then shifting to the pathology of U.S. private health insurance, and the country's long-standing aversion to socialized medicine. The latter part of the film is spent visiting several other nations and having a look at how their public care systems work.

Is it propaganda? You bet. As always, Moore has a masterful way of using music, pop-culture references and juxtaposed images to make his point. People cry on camera - which he milks for all he can - and interview fragments are taken slightly out of context to make certain people seem slimier and more calloused than they might have appeared otherwise. Moore makes no bones about wearing his biases on his sleeve, and frankly I have more of a problem with news and documentaries that clearly use similar tactics, but do it while claiming to be objective.

The big criticism of the movie is that Moore spends a good deal of time painting a very rosy picture of the socialized health-care systems in Canada, England, France and Cuba. My finaceƩ's parents are from England and lived in Canada before moving to the US. One of my sisters also lived in Canada for several years and is now in France. Although each will commend certain things about health-care in those respective countries, there is also a good deal to complain about in terms of having to wait weeks to see a specialist, etc. I can't remember if the film brought this up, but it is common for the wealthier citizens of France, for example, to have private health insurance to supplement the service that the government provides. These complaints go virtually unaddressed in Moore's film, and have already been major attack points for its critics.

The omissions are also disappointing because it seems he missed an opportunity to underline a point that is suggested at in the movie, but never stated clearly: While none of these other countries are devoid of problems, some kind of American socialized medicine system, however flawed, would at the very least be a God-send for the 50 million or so who cannot afford it or cannot get it through their employer (to say nothing of the thousands more who are left out in the wind when their insurance company refuses to approve something necessary). Such a system in America would not be perfect and would certainly mean significantly higher taxes (another point the film doesn't annunciate clearly, although it should be kept in mind that one might no longer pay for private insurance). The unspoken reality is that a combination of the systems detailed in Moore's film will probably be needed if better health-care is to materialize in the US.

While Jon Stewart has been careful to remind people that The Daily Show isn't trying to be great social commentary, Moore seems to be a bit more eager to promote himself as the spokesman for the angry and under-represented of America. You can safely call him a muckraker (in the very best meaning of the term, of course), and it's fair to call him obnoxious at times as well. One of my friends who is _not_ a Michael Moore fan recently described him as a blunt instrument, lacking subtlety on pretty much all levels.

These are all valid complaints, but I will say that I'll always have a soft spot for guys like Moore. Not because I agree with his politics all the time (although I frequently do) or because I think he has some good ideas for the country (some of them are good, some of them are bat-shit crazy), but really because he's achieved a certain kind of celebrity and a particular public podium which he uses to prompt discussion on ideas he really cares about. Both Moore and Stewart take delight in running footage where politicians give wildly contradictory statements on the same issue. Both point out when newscasters and politicians alike are fear-mongering, spreading misleading information, or otherwise exhibiting behavior that we should not tolerate from our nation's legislators and decision-makers. People who might not be inclined to read a lot of news or take part in political discussion could perhaps watch for the entertainment, but walk away a bit more informed. I'll gladly take that over any Michael Bay movie you can show me.

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