After announcing itself with the requisite George W. Bush-as-incoherent-idiot sound bite, Michael Moore's "SiCKO" officially begins with a close-up of an unhealed wound. From that point on, Moore will train his camera on countless gashes and sores, most of them psychological, all of which hit the viewer with the force of a hurricane. The subject matter is so inherently powerful and frustrating, and the horror stories "SiCKO" relates are so relatable to American audiences, that one almost wishes that Moore had simply allowed his participants to just speak: to let the running camera record these everyday people's woes, to create a nonstop ethnographic view of contemporary American life from the point of view of those who've been let down by its bureaucracies and greed. Yet asking Moore to unyoke himself from his identity as an entertainer is like imploring Michael Bay to try his hand at E.M. Forster: it's not gonna happen, and, regardless of our own aesthetic criteria, do we really want it to?
Surely "SiCKO" is overburdened with the sorts of questionable judgments and glibness that one has come to expect from Moore, or perhaps more specifically, the kind that experienced critics tend to harp on. For this alternately excoriating and self-defeating expose of the rancid shithole that is U.S. health care, Moore often pulls from his bag of tricks. Clips of shiny Fifties suburbia are returned to for ironic juxtaposition, a scrolling text of the pre-existing medical conditions that insurance companies use to reject prospective applicants is set to the "Star Wars" theme against an outer-space backdrop, overemphatic musical cues, such as Barber's "Adagio for Strings" underline already heart-rending moments in case we didn't get the situation's inherent drama.
In one case, he cheaply interviews the mother of a dead child amidst a bustling playground. Finally, Moore of course ends on a note of grandstanding, bringing a group of uninsured non-government-hired 9/11 rescue workers first to Guantanamo Bay and then to a medical center in Cuba, to get the proper medical care denied them in the U.S; though Moore proves his point that the power and fear of filmmaking has momentarily aided these victims, there's no serious investigation into the medical establishment in Cuba as compared to the U.S., aside from an apparently sweeter bedside manner.
Yet, in the larger face of the nearly fifty million Americans without health insurance and the searing personal dramas that dot the film's canvas, "SiCKO" must be tagged as a qualified success. At this point, it can't be ignored that Moore is this country's most popular and persuasive capturer of the details and nuances of the American lower middle class. And that's no small accomplishment.
Aside from cataloguing the horrors of everyday people who have been rejected by their insurance companies or have gone bankrupt from health costs, "SiCKO" also spends a huge amount of time comparing the benefits of nationalized health coverage, as evidenced in Canada, France, and the UK, to the withering bureaucracy of privatized care here. These sections, which focus on individual stories rather than concrete facts and figures (which are sorely missing) makes for some of the film's most generalized yet also most amusing scenes: British National Health Service (NHS) patients and workers simply stare back in disbelief or laugh in Moore's face when he asks about the in-out patient fees.
Repeatedly acknowledging that irrational fear of socialism has contributed to our distrust of nationalized health care, Moore obviously feels the need to further prove he is democracy's greatest defender, not enemy (he contemplatively stops before a statue of Karl Marx midway through the film, but why?), hence the recurring images of American flags and the climactic paean to 9/11's rescue workers. It's a move that feels more canny than natural, but "SiCKO" is after all, just a primo piece of agitprop. And it's about time someone made it.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor at the Criterion Collection.]