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Film Review: Sicko

Sicko (2007; Directed by Michael Moore)

Michael Moore’s Sicko would seem like a film worth revisiting, what with the Democratic Party’s historical (if compromised) health care reform bill recently upheld against a challenge of unconstitutionality by the U.S. Supreme Court. The symptoms of the illness at the heart of Stateside health care Sicko diagnosed were front-and-centre for half a year at least while the Affordable Care Act was being debated, as were the rosy (and the terrible) portrayals of the systems in other Western democracies and the liberal anti-capitalist criticisms of insurance companies and the rest of the for-profit health sector. Moore’s ultimate argument that America would benefit from a bit of borrowing from foreign systems was often presented in the public debate over the legislative shaping of the bill as well. Of course, the bill that was passed and has been upheld by the Court only addresses a few of the endemic issues paralyzing U.S. health care, issues that Moore’s film gets mostly pinpoints correctly.

Still, little about Sicko comes across as terribly resonant. Michael Moore’s problems as a filmmaker are numerous, but his uncanny ability to lose many of those who ought to agree with him is his most maddening. Conservatives and capitalists are already on the outs, of course, but his shoddy (ab)use of facts and evidence and goofy musical, sound and archival footage choices only serve to alienate conscientious policy liberals.

His investigative methods rely heavily on the anecdotal, which humanizes his agit-prop but also weakens its conclusions. You don’t have to be a paleoconservative hater tossing around fat jokes to be skeptical about the value of the personal stories he focuses on, especially when he goes to Canada (where I know first-hand that many citizens are not entirely satisfied with the level of care) and finds nothing but positive stories.

Moore’s insistence on presenting every system in every country other than America as utopian and perfect, without likewise admitting their faults, is condescending to those countries and hardly likely to convince ordinary Americans to embrace such reforms. A more responsible analysis of the pros and cons of the American system, contrasted with those of the social democracies he examines, would be much more effective and harder to pigeonhole. Such an analysis would find those systems wanting but still would locate far more advantages for patients than in the U.S., and would lead to a much more hermetic thesis. But Moore is a chronic oversimplifier, and leaves his argument open to numerous broadsides as a result.

So, as usual, Moore’s film is frustrating to this liberal who largely agrees with its premises at least. It’s frustrating because he presents viewpoints and arguments in an emotionally-heated, overly inept way that allows them to be easily quibbled with, contradicted, and ultimately dismissed by those who are invested in their defeat. Despite the occasional moment of progressive rallying, Moore’s Sicko, like most of his films, makes it infinitely harder to be a liberal. I don’t think he need to be rewarded for that.

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