Late in Michael Moore’s tremendous new documentary Sicko, the ever-controversial filmmaker charters three boats in Miami in order to take a few of his film’s subjects to the US military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The reason? That they might receive the same free health care that the prisoners on the base (reportedly members of Al Qaeda) receive from the US government. It’s a classic Michael Moore tactic; A fixed target, symbol of hypocrisy, and no one has any idea that the troublemaking filmmaker is en route to raise some hell. The result is also a telling sign; Moore never makes it to the base. Michael Moore is no longer the anonymous everyman that raised indignant eyebrows over the abandonment of Flint, MI in Roger & Me. We’re all hip to the game now; When you see Michael Moore coming, you’d better fold up the tents, zip your lips, and head for the hills.
It is a testament to Moore’s effectiveness as a storyteller and filmmaker that over the course of only six feature films he has been able to practically re-invent the political documentary as a new brand of political theater that resembles Upton Sinclair more closely than Al Maysles. That said, as an artist, he has become such a polarizing figure, so detested by his opponents and able to embitter even his ideological allies, that his work balances precariously between his decision to place himself in his films and the polarizing impact of his presence on the perceived legitimacy of his subject matter. Not surprisingly, no decision Moore makes is seen as the right one; if he speaks up, he is told to shut up and get out of the way. If he doesn’t stand front and center and promote direct action surrounding his subject matter (be it gun control, health care or NAFTA), he’s a profiteering asshole who doesn’t really care about his subjects. Damned if you do, I guess.
Of course, with Moore’s celebrity persona (did we ever think we’d be saying that about a documentary filmmaker?) standing outré on the big screen, his film making skill tends to get lost in the shadow of the debate about everything from his physique to his work habits. In the past, I have openly defended Michael Moore on this blog because I never have doubted his intentions, his tactics or his film making as anything more than absolutely legitimate contributions to the art of documentary film. His new film has done nothing to shake my faith in the man; Sicko is probably Michael Moore’s best movie, if not his most urgent.
Michael Moore In Sicko
I also wanted address the “issue” of Moore’s tactics as a film maker; I just don’t get what all the fuss is about. I wrote it in 2004 and I’ll repeat it again here:
“The truth is that all film is storytelling, and in the case of documentary, even more so. Whereas a fictional films can utilize invented scenarios and dramatic events in order to illustrate greater human truths (see The Last Temptation of Christ for a clear illustration of how this can be as divisive as non-fiction), documentary films must generate drama from the stuff of real life, and then only what is captured by the camera. In addition to its dramatic charge, a great documentary, like all great films, must have singular and powerful point of view; it must make an argument. Some documentaries, like the classic Salesman or Grey Gardens by the Maysles Brothers, or Titticut Follies by the incomparable Frederick Wiseman, use the technique of removing the filmmaker from the proceedings on the screen, allowing the documentarian to make his point of view clearly known in the editing suite, through the selection and ordering of scenes and materials. Moore had great success in Roger & Me by establishing himself as an onscreen character, a piece of the story integral to his subjective style of narrative. But don’t be fooled. All documentary film is predicated on a subjective narrative. There is a subject, but the artist behind the camera records and selects how the film looks, what footage will be used, in what order, and to what end. Documentary film is not news reportage; it has more in common with fictional cinema, simply deriving its dramatic content from real life events. In order to make great art, the documentarian is charged only with telling the truth.
Of course, this calls into question the fundamental notion of truth in film. Is the truth of a situation or event only to be told chronologically, through as many subjective viewpoints as possible, and presented as broadly as possible so the audience can glean the so-called objective reality? That may be the goal of scholarship, but it has never been the domain of great art. What art is and should always be about is a filtering of events and ideas through the artist’s sensibilities, to be presented back to an audience through the artist’s point of view.”
Or more to the point, who gives a fuck what gets left on the editing room floor? Does leaving out footage of Moore interviewing Roger Smith at some point early in the production of Roger & Me have any fundamental impact on the truth of the film, that corporations have abandoned working communities for profiteering abroad?* What John Pierson and Agnes Varnum ** get wrong in their separate pieces on Moore and his work is this earnest belief that documentary is reportage, that the ultimate goal of making a film and telling a story by way of documentary is somehow beholden to a literal presentation of events as they happened. Is Moore really an asshole for not setting up a direct action campaign against the Managed Care industry? Why isn’t the film enough? Should Eugene Jarecki have set up an action campaign against the Military Industrial Complex when he made Why We Fight? How should Alex Gibney have empowered Enron stockholders to fight for their money after seeing Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room? While we’re at it, let’s ask Gibney the next steps for dismantling the US policy for torture and detention after seeing Taxi To The Dark Side. The answer is always the same; the people of America need to learn to recognize their interests and vote to preserve them. Take political action. Filmmakers like Moore, Jarecki and Gibney are using their money and position to illustrate these problems and educate the public. That’s far more than 99% of the rest of us. The world is full of great films about important topics that stand alone and raise more questions than they answer; For me that is a part of what makes them great. The film is enough.
What grounds Sicko and puts it at or near the top of Moore’s body of work is his return to his role as a voice of the people; unlike Bowling For Columbine and Fahrenheit 911, which dealt directly with the paralyzing disbelief of the left at the deceptions and political corruption causing havoc in our culture, Sicko takes an almost incontrovertible, universally held belief and presents evidence for why we cherish this belief. I have spent hours reading about the film, about Moore’s decision to do this and his fact-checking on that, and I haven’t read a single word of argument against the film’s fundamental premise that people, regardless of their income and status in society, have the right to receive medical treatment when they are in need of it.
At least, everyone else seems to think so. In an enlightening and admittedly simplified middle section, Moore goes traipsing across Canada and various European capitals to uncover the secrets of universal health care. These segments are enlightening if only because of the consistent smile that registers on the faces of interviewees when they espouse the benefits of free care. Of course, there are citizens dissatisfied with nationalized health care who remain conspicuously off-screen, but that is beside the point; The ups and downs of quality of care are a shadow of concern compared to the horrors that unfold in the lives of American patients. Denial of service leading to death, denial of claims leading to bankruptcy; In the face of the overwhelming evidence that the current American health and insurance system was established as a disincentive to actually delivering health care you can keep your petty squabbles about wait times and ‘choice’; There is no choice at all. It is irrefutable which system has the interests of the people at heart.
Newborn Baby? Priceless. Literally: Brits take advantage of the free National Health in Michael Moore’s Sicko
Moore implicitly understands that the best way to illustrate this reality is to let the patients do the talking, let them show their emotion and unveil the truth about their situations. Who else is giving voice to working people in this country about this issue? These aren’t talking head experts for the most part; These are people like you and me. That said, Moore’s voice-over, ranging from indignant outrage to the trademarked sotto voce that Moore uses to underline his most emotional moments, is still one of his creative weaknesses: I find his readings too ‘on the nose’ to contribute any subtlety to these moments. Yet Moore’s storytelling shines in Sicko because, while the overall premise and argument are his, the anecdotal and irrefutable evidence of the victims (yes, victims) of the Managed Care industry makes up the heart and soul of the film. Structurally, Moore seems to have learned several creative lessons, tweaking his approach to maximize Sicko’s message; Whereas in the past, Moore might score political points by marching his subjects into the offices of the insurance companies and demanding coverage, in Sicko, he finds a more practical (after all, who in the industry would talk to him?) and enlightened solution; He takes his subjects to Cuba and has them receive free treatment in a state-run Cuban medical facility.
Any American who watches a woman who has lost her home to health care related debt break down in tears of disbelief as she receives free health care from what is essentially a Third World hospital will feel deeply ashamed. How can it be that a nation like Cuba, relatively poor, can provide free health care to its people while we, the richest nation in the world, drive our people into debt and despair for the sake of medical profiteering? Sicko is built on moments like this, and succeeds because it recognizes the fundamental humanity of its subjects.
But is it agitprop? Let’s ask CNN what they think about it;
“Our team investigated some of the claims put forth in his film. We found that his numbers were mostly right, but his arguments could use a little more context. As we dug deep to uncover the numbers, we found surprisingly few inaccuracies in the film. In fact, most pundits or health-care experts we spoke to spent more time on errors of omission rather than disputing the actual claims in the film.”— A. Chris Gajilan, CNN.com, June 28, 2007
Doesn’t seem ‘fair and balanced’ to you? How about this quote…
“Filmmaker Michael Moore’s brilliant and uplifting new documentary, ‘Sicko,’ deals with the failings of the U.S. healthcare system, both real and perceived. But this time around, the controversial documentarian seems to be letting the subject matter do the talking, and in the process shows a new maturity.”—Roger Friedman, FOX News, May 20, 2007.
Not that anyone needs FOX News to justify what has been obvious in Moore’s work from the beginning; He is a master of political theater at its most potent, and with Sicko, he’s provided the kind of dramatic storytelling that used to inspire marches in the streets, newspaper exposés, and bipartisan legislation aimed at righting an overwhelming injustice. And in these infuriating, heartbreaking times in which we live, what is our government’s response? The federal government has opened an investigation into Moore’s trip to Cuba, which officials say was in violation of the trade and commerce embargo against the Communist country. Talk about shooting the messenger; It’s time to re-build, America, and there’s no better place to start than at the top.
*By the way, I also disagree with John’s assessment that multi-billion dollar losses at GM were in any way related to paying a living wage to manual labor; How about bloated management who took the company in the absolute wrong direction by arrogantly misunderstanding their customers? The pension program and the union cost GM its competitiveness? How about the greedy GMAC financing program that was terribly mismanaged? The company has ALWAYS put share price and executive salaries ahead of its employees best interests. Having grown up in Flint and followed this issue closely for decades, I don’t buy John’s argument here for a minute.
**I should say, I respect John and Agnes both very much and it’s nothing personal; We happen to disagree on this one. Both are invaluable voices in the industry and passionate defenders of their beliefs. I try to do the same in my own work. Nothing wrong with that.