Michael Moore's latest thesis film, Sicko, begins with the sobering statistic that 18,000 people a year—of the 50 million Americans without health insurance—die because of their lack of coverage. But Moore tells us his movie isn't about them—it's about the people who do have coverage, and continue to suffer indignities, punishments, and even death to protect corporate bottom lines. As usual, Moore employs sarcasm and music and selective presentation of facts to throw his documentary gut punch, and as usual, his film has a potent impact.
The film's designer, narrator, and (eventually) on-camera host, Moore takes an intellectually non-threatening tack that will play broadly with audiences willing to step into theaters showing his film. (In the body of the film, Moore cleverly—and smugly—points out that a blogger who's of his greatest detractors has good reason to applaud the message of Sicko.) Sicko is decidedly one-sided, framed to ask the rhetorical question "Who could possibly disagree that the rest of the Western world has better health care systems than we do?" Moore makes a convincing case for the answer "No one," but he doesn't directly address the logical follow-up question: "How do we reform our system?"
By way of hackle-raising context, Moore plays us a tape of Erlichmann and Nixon conspiring to support Edgar Kaiser's Permanente plan in 1971, paving the way for today's HMO nightmare. Moore also tours Canada, England, France, and Cuba to highlight how, despite vast resources, America remains backwards on health coverage. Throughout, Moore presents case studies, often tearful, of real people affected by government and corporate failures. In an example of music used shamelessly, Moore accompanies the 1996 Congressional testimony of former insurance-company former medical reviewer Linda Peeno with Barber's "Adagio for Strings."
Moore's liberal shtick isn't for everyone, but it is finely tuned: in a classic bit, he plays us a cut from the album "Ronald Reagan Speaks Out About Socialized Medicine." If the tone is generally softer than in Fahrenheit 9/11, more baffled than angry, Moore still spits vitriol at the greedy power-brokers in whose interest it is to perpetuate the current system. From these villains, Moore proceeds to heroes: 9/11 responders languishing with inadequate coverage and Kafaesque service denials.
These sufferers eventually accompany Moore on one of his trademark stunts, an unapproved cruise to Cuba in search of free universal care. Moore misleadingly states, without hesitation, that the deluxe treatment we see the Americans enjoy is the same any Cuban would receive; clearly, that's not the case. But as embarrassments go, it's a good one: a climactic slap in the face to American pride. Though a debate about practical application would be welcome, Moore's people-person approach and sense of humor make Sicko a warm, humane, sad, and funny response to a social crisis.