Michael Moore has teased and bullied his way to some brilliant highs in his career as a political entertainer, but he scrapes bottom in his new documentary, “Sicko.” The movie is an attack on the American health-care system, and it starts out strongly, with Moore interviewing families who have been betrayed or neglected by H.M.O.s and insurance companies. A man whose life might have been saved by a bone-marrow transplant died when he was refused “experimental” treatment. A feverish baby died when her mother, rather than taking her to a hospital run by her insurer, Kaiser Permanente, rushed her to the nearest emergency room, where they were turned away. Moore then zeroes in on the situation of three volunteer Ground Zero rescue workers, who have trouble breathing or who suffer from stress and can’t get assistance from the federal government. More baffled than angry, they soberly report on their conditions, and Moore comments that even national heroes aren’t given help by the nation. A bit later in the film, however, he presents congressional testimony suggesting that people the Administration has deemed to be national enemies—the detainees at Guantánamo Bay—are receiving good health care free. So Moore loads the Ground Zero volunteers, plus some other people who have serious health problems, into three boats in the Miami harbor. “Which way to Guantánamo Bay?” he calls out to a Coast Guard vessel, and the little flotilla sets off for Cuba. When the boats arrive outside the base, they are, of course, stonily denied entrance.
An absurdist of outrage, Moore has attacked corporations that destroy cities by closing down local plants (“Roger & Me”); a gun-happy culture that makes arms easily available (“Bowling for Columbine”); an Administration that begins a war without sufficient cause (“Fahrenheit 9/11”). He has stalked corporate officials and congressmen, planted his bulk before them and asked mock-naïve questions, and his provocations, at their best, have smoked out hypocrites and liars. But this confrontation is different. Hauling off seriously ill people to a military base where they won’t receive treatment is a dumb prank. And the insensitivity isn’t much relieved by the piece of whimsy that comes next: Moore and the rescue workers (the other sick voyagers having mysteriously disappeared) wander onto the streets of Havana and ask some guys playing dominoes if there’s a doctor nearby. They go to a pharmacy and then to a hospital, where the Americans are admitted and treated. Few people in Moore’s audience are likely to be displeased that they receive help from a Communist system. But what is the point of Moore’s fiction of a desperate, wandering quest for medicine on the streets, as if he hadn’t known in advance that Cuba has free health care? Why not tell us what really happened on the trip—for instance, what part Cuban officials played in receiving the American patients?
After the early tales of the system’s failure, “Sicko” becomes feeble, even inane. A recent poll shows that a majority of Americans not only favor a national health service but are willing to pay higher taxes for it. In that case, wouldn’t it have made sense for Moore to find out what features of universal care in other countries could be adapted to America? Instead of sorting through any of this, Moore and his crew go from place to place—to Canada, England, and France, as well as Cuba—and, at every stop, he pulls the same silly stunt of pretending to be astonished that health care is free. How much do people pay here in France? Nothing? You’ve got to be kidding. But isn’t everyone taxed to death to pay for health care? Well, here’s a nice, two-income French couple who have a great apartment and collect sand from the deserts of the world. Not only haven’t they been impoverished by taxation; they travel. And so on.
In each country, Moore interviews doctors who speak proudly of how well their country’s system works. But the candor of these doctors is no more impressive than that of the corporate spokesmen Moore has confronted in the past. No one mentions the delays or the instances of less than first-rate care. We find out that a doctor in Great Britain makes a good income (about two hundred thousand dollars), but not how medical care in, say, Toronto might differ from that in a distant rural area, or how shortages may have affected the quality of Cuban health care. Moore winds up treating the audience the same way that, he says, powerful people treat the weak in America—as dopes easily satisfied with fairy tales and bland reassurances. And since he doesn’t interview any of the countless Americans who have been mulling over ways to reform our system, we’re supposed to come away from “Sicko” believing that sane thinking on these issues is unknown here. In the actual political world, the major Democratic Presidential candidates have already offered, or will soon offer, plans for reform. A shift to the left, or, at least, to the center, has overtaken Michael Moore, yielding an irony more striking than any he turns up: the changes in political consciousness that Moore himself has helped produce have rendered his latest film almost superfluous.