Part of the way through Sicko, a young mother tells the heartbreaking story of her toddler daughter who fell ill with a high fever. Because the woman didn’t have an account with the correct medical insurance firm – because the computer said no – the child was refused emergency hospital treatment and died.
Sicko is a shocker, alright. That’s because, for a change, Michael Moore doesn’t have to cook up the shocks himself. He lets the statistics – and a parade of victims’ voices – do it for him. No trite cartoons or low-blow point-scoring; no backhanded agenda-building or confrontations… Just a scalding, surgical dissection of how US healthcare reform has been endlessly vetoed by smirking neo-conservatives with too much vested interest to allow a – shudder – socialist-style system where everyone helps to pay for each other’s good health. In other words, the rich get richer while the poor get sicker.
In Bowling For Columbine, Moore used a withering central interview with Marilyn Manson to illustrate the film’s main thrust: blaming pop culture for society’s ills is just smoke-screen for self-serving politicians.
Here, he presents notorious political plain-speaker Tony Benn as the booming voice of reason. Benn lays out the humbling truth: Britain’s National Health Service emerged from a post-war urge to come together and rebuild, repair and replenish.
His – and Moore’s – point is calm and clear: all this money and status-lust is whittling down our basic humanity. But the old firebrand can’t stay dampened down for long. When Moore eventually steps in front of the camera, there’s a major wobble as the picture loses his wonderful, syrupy-satirical voiceover and gains a more conventional focus on interviews and nodding inserts.
He’s also way too dewy-eyed about the Cuban system (always a fast-track US establishment wind-up) and quick to swoon over French, British and Canadian healthcare, lazily restricting his approaches to photogenic, middle-class people who tell us how terrific their lives are under public-funded healthcare. For a rangier picture, he really should have lifted a few rocks around the tower-blocks and outcast estates. And, since Sicko initially seems to be following a more direct line of attack – on the insurance industry’s profiteering – it’s a shame that Moore allows himself to be seduced by woolier, more soapbox-friendly themes of injustice and ideology. But Sicko (Moore’s first feature doc since Fahrenheit 9/11) is still the most robust and rounded of his multiplex polemics. Mutters about anti-Americanism are way off the mark. It’s Moore’s strong affection for his homeland that fuels these howls of outrage. "The US is a great country", he says. "Bursting with life and soul and beauty and innovation and possibility: a wonderful place to pursue happiness. Just, whatever you do, don’t get ill".
A bitter but bracing pill. Moore constructs a fiery but unfanatical argument that boils down to a simple truth: Americans need to stop helping themselves and start helping each other.