Sicko Review

I decided to post my Sicko review over at New Critics. I’m becoming increasingly convinced that it’s one of Moore’s strongest documentaries to date, in part because Moore rarely overplays his hand with the gotcha moments that have characterized his previous films. Instead, it offers a relatively simple–and direct–thesis that health care should be a public good. Ultimately my reading was somewhat influenced by Chistopher Hayes’ Nation article on the film, which does a good job of emphasizing this aspect of Moore’s argument (also worth checking out: Edward Copeland’s review, which describes many of the health care horror stories I only mentioned in passing).

Update: At the request of SEK, here’s the full text of my New Critics review below the fold:

While Michael Moore’s latest documentary, Sicko may not receive nearly the attention that his last film, Fahrenheit 9/11 did, I think that Moore’s scathing critique of the health-care industry deserves wider attention, if only because it challenges the way that our current health-care system, with its incessant ads for drug companies and minimal hospital stays, has been naturalized and widely accepted. Like many of Moore’s documentaries (including, most famously, Roger and Me), the details of Sicko’s argument have been challenged; however, I think that Moore’s strength as a filmmaker comes from his ability to use narrative structure and cinematic identification to challenge dominant arguments, in this case the belief that privatized health care is more efficient and effective than universal health care.

Sicko deconstructs a number of the narratives used to promote privatized health-care and, importantly, also illustrates how many of those narratives were established in the first place. This background information includes a crucial piece of research, a tape of Richard Nixon talking to top aide John Ehrlichman about a proposed plan by Edgar Kaiser, son of the founder of Kasier Permanente, to expand the market for HMOs. In the conversation, we get perhaps the most distilled definition of HMOs available in the film:

Ehrlichman: I had Edgar Kaiser come in…talk to me about this and I went into it in some depth. All the incentives are toward less medical care, because the less care they give them, the more money they make.

Ehrlichman’s comments, which starkly show that HMOs seem to privilege profit over the health of their patients, frame Moore’s interviews with several people who received inadequate coverage, at best, from their HMOs (while also reminding us that many people in the US don’t have any health coverage at all, including most famously, a guy who was forced to choose between paying $12,000 to save his ring finger or $60,000 to save his middle finger).

We also see (or hear) Ronald Reagan, then a B-movie star best known for playing the Gipper, delivering a public relations talk on behalf of the American Medical Assoication against the evils of “socialized medicine.” As Christopher Hayes points out, Reagan’s career as a PR spokesperson (he also recorded several anti-union talks) has been more or less forgotten, but Moore does a valuable service in providing this history lesson and reminding us how we got here, and it is unsurprising to hear many of the same arguments that continue to be used in persuading the American public that universal health care is bad (long lines, bad service, no choice, etc). And as Hayes implies, the documentary–and much of Moore’s work–can be seen in terms of its efforts to roll back Reagan’s destructive policies and to restore something closer to the New Deal. In fact, Moore’s trip to Cuba with the 9/11 workers can even be read in terms of a critique of our hardline policies against Castro’s Cuba.

Moore further deconstucts this narrative by visiting countries where universal health care exists. He talks to “typical” middle-class families in Canada, the UK, and in France, showing them visiting the doctor or talking about their health care policies. This approach is perhaps best illustrated by a scene in which Moore dines with a group of US expatriates who discuss the benefits of the French system, where they also highlight France’s laws that stipulate that everyone is entitled to five weeks of vacation, for example. The scene is certainly persuasive on a number of levels, even if it obscures the fact that France is not the utopian country that Moore depicts in the film. But what I like about these scenes is that they remind us that the current model of health care and that our current labor practices are not inevitable, but that a more egalitarian model is possible. They also do quite a bit to challenge the idea that France’s taxes are a huge burden for this family (including a similar scene with a working-class French family might have made this point stronger).

In short, I think Moore works best when he is challenging dominant discourses, pointing out the ways in which our access to information is shaped by power, in this case, the power of the health care industries to “lobby” politicians and public figures. It is worth emphasizing that Moore’s films are inseparable from the publicity they generate, and Sicko is no exception. And I think that’s a significant aspect of Wolf Blitzer’s interview of Michael Moore on CNN tonight, in which Moore and CNN-doctor-journalist Sanjay Gupta accuse Moore of fudging the facts. Moore points out that CNN itself is heavily subsidized by ads paid for by drug companies and HMOs, raising important questions about whose interests are being served in CNN’s interview. I write these comments with some caution because I am aware that Moore himself has manipulated chronology in at least one of his films, but I do think that Sicko does offer a compelling alternative to our current health and labor system.


  1. SEK Said,

    July 9, 2007 @ 10:10 pm

    Chuck, quick note about the New Critics site: for those of us without the best health insurance plans, the inability to change the font size without every word blending into another is a tad annoying. I want to know your response to Sicko, but I also don’t want a migraine … so maybe a cross-post wouldn’t be a bad thing?

  2. Chuck Said,

    July 9, 2007 @ 10:18 pm

    Here’s the full review (below the fold). I wish I’d remembered to revisit your review when I wrote mine. As I recall, you had a much more critical take on the film than I did, which would have been a nice corrective to my more optimistic read.

  3. The Chutry Experiment » Critical Condition Said,

    September 21, 2008 @ 11:51 am

    […] like Michael Moore’s Sicko, Critical Condition reminds us of the absurd choices people are forced to make in order to preserve […]

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