Aw, Shucks! Provocateur Takes on Health Care
CANNES, France, May 20 — Three years after conquering the Cannes Film Festival and winning the Palme d’Or for “Fahrenheit 9/11,” Michael Moore has returned the amour big time with “Sicko,” his most fluid provocation to date. A persuasive, insistently leftist indictment of the American health care system, as well as a funny valentine to all things French — and many things Canadian, British and Cuban — the film shows that while Mr. Moore remains a radical partisan, he has learned how to sell his argument with a softer touch. He’s still the P. T. Barnum of activist cinema, but he no longer runs the entire circus directly from the spotlight.
To that shrewd end almost an entire hour has lapsed before Mr. Moore lumbers in front of the camera in “Sicko,” his aw-shucks grin and baseball cap firmly in place. By that point he has introduced a wealth of evidence (photographs, news clips and archival footage) and a sprawling cast of characters (patients, health care workers and Washington politicians), each another piece in the evolving puzzle. How did we get here and why?, Mr. Moore asks in his faux-folksy, at times icky-sticky voice-over. Though of course there’s never any doubt that this director of “Bowling for Columbine,” a blistering attack on American gun culture, believes he knows who is to blame for the state of the nation’s health care and why.
Mr. Moore has always been a canny rhetorician: He’s a master of the obvious observation and the pseudo-naïve question. These can be effective ploys, but they sometimes come across as maddeningly condescending. Early in “Sicko” he says, “I always thought that the health insurance companies were here to help us,” a statement that the very existence of this film proves preposterous. It’s as if Mr. Moore’s didn’t want his Everyman persona to look or sound too smart, a tactic that results only in dumber movies. He’s on firmer ground when he lets other people do the talking and when he takes his entertaining show on the road to Canada, Britain and France, where in between nicely timed comic bits and man-on-the-street encounters, he explores the many pluses if none of the minuses of universal health care.
By contrast his widely publicized trip to Cuba with Americans in need of better health care, including a handful of Sept. 11 rescue workers, registers as ill conceived because it takes place in a political vacuum. It’s difficult to share his enthusiasm about that country’s apparently terrific health care given its history of human-rights abuses. Mr. Moore’s larger point is that there is something terribly wrong when one of the world’s poorer nations can care for its people while the richest, most powerful nation in the world lets its citizens literally rot on the street, as happens every day on Los Angeles’s skid row. In “Sicko” greed is the pathogen that has diseased a health care system in which all Americans, including those who think that the H.M.O. card in their wallet has them covered, are the terminally wronged patients. MANOHLA DARGIS