A film review by Craig J. Koban
2007, PG-13, 116 mins.
A documentary written and directed by Michael Moore
I love Canada..my home and native land..
I can’t possibly think of another country that I would rather live. Michael Moore’s new documentary, SICKO - a damning, oftentimes heart-breaking, occasionally hilarious, and thoroughly disturbing expose of the U.S. health care system – only reinforced my admiration for where I reside. Few film going experiences have left me feeling as proud of my homeland as this one did.
Why? Because the film uses the universal health care system that our citizens possess as a very effective counterpoint to the horrible and systemic inadequacies that afflict the American HMO system. Certainly, health care is a a very important privilege, but it should also be a fundamental right, open to all citizens, regardless of economic status. It gives me a certain amount of relief that if a day passes by where (for example) I accidentally chop off two of my fingers that I can securely walk into any hospital and be assured that I will not have to personably go bankrupt at the expense of putting my severed fingers back on my hand.
Oh Canada, indeed.
People like my mother would certainly be a destitute cripple in a wheel chair if it were not for Canada’s so-called "socialist" health care system. After having gone through not one, but two knee replacement surgeries, she is able to stand on her own two feet. My country’s health care system fit the bill. Dear old mom did not pay a dime for her surgery. Yes, she missed months of work as a direct result of the surgery and took a huge pay cut by being on employment insurance while in hospital, but the little she lost in salary was nothing compared to what she could have lost if she were a US citizen having the same procedures done south of the border. That’s the subtle brilliance of SICKO; it’s ultimately a profoundly insightful and sobering look at why the US health care system is, in essence, a complete and utter shame.
No doubt, if my mother lived in America, there is no way she could have afforded to have her surgery without putting her in the poor house indefinitely. What Moore does very effectively early on in his documentary is he presents a few cases of ordinary, US citizens and how their own health concerns and problems simply were given a blind eye by their insurance companies. The true horror story of the film is that it shows how decent, law abiding, tax paying citizens have been denied care because of two unalterable - and disgusting - facts:
1. They had no health care insurance, hence, could not afford to pay their medical bills.
2. Their insurance companies that they pay their hard earned dollars into for "support" denied their medical claims.
One couple in particular - as an early moment in the film reveals - was forced to move into their twenty-something daughter’s home because of the father’s three heart attacks. Their insurance simply was growing inadequate to cover the mounting expenses. They were forced to sell their home and move into a small basement room in their daughter’s house.
Also consider the insipidly frustrating story of one man who lopped off two of his fingers in a nasty carpentry accident. His doctor - and insurance company - gave him a choice: he could have is middle finger sewn back together for $60,000 or his ring finger done for "the bargain price" of $12,000. Being a romantic, the man said good-bye to flipping the bird effectively with his wedding band hand and paid twelve large to have his ring finger fixed.
One finger: $12K. Hmmm...what would two knee replacement surgeries run? That thought alone is scary.
The lists of health care atrocities continues to pile up as Moore matter-of-factly chronicles them in the film. There is a ridiculous story of how a woman was stuck with the ambulance bill after she was hit head-on in a collision with her car and was taken, while unconscious, to the hospital. Why was she forced to pay? Because her health care provider deemed that she needed to make arrangements before the accident with the ambulance service to be covered (this mentality is mind-boggling; was she supposed to call right before she was nailed by another vehicle?). Then there is the tale of one woman who had a surgery, was completely covered by her health care provider, but they later retroactively cancelled her surgery coverage. Why? Because she failed to mention a simple yeast infection before the surgery.
These stories - however shocking and appalling - are nothing compared to those of families that suffered even greater losses as a result of the lack of universal health care. Moore reveals examples of how some people have died because of lack of care and coverage. Utterly lamentable is the story of widow Tracy Pierce, whose husband had life-threatening kidney cancer. Doctors at the time suggested several courses of action to help save his life, one would have included a bone marrow transplant - supplied by the man’s brother - which could have easily saved his life. Unfortunately, his health care insurance would not cover these types of actions because they astoundingly deemed as "experimental". Without any coverage, Tracey Pierce’s husband died a very preventable death.
The frightening stories continue. Beyond the anecdotes of all of these ill-fated people that have suffered and made unalterable sacrifices, Moore shows how the botched and decrepit US health care system deals with those that are at the lowest notch of the financial ladder. Homeless people in particular seem to suffering the most. More often than not, these disadvantage people are essentially booted out of hospitals, often while still wearing hospital gowns, put in taxis and are eventually dumped off at homeless shelters. One incomparably eerie moment in the film has an actual surveillance tape that shows one poor, old woman - still in nightgown - dropped off by a screeching taxi. She is dazed and disturbed, not knowing where she really is.
It gets worse.
Perhaps the real icing on this distasteful cake is how Moore deals with the stories of those inside the insurance companies, who, in essence are told to do all that they can to ensure that claims never go through and that corporate CEO’s and the companies make huge profits. Moore interviews Lee Einer, whose job it was at a very large - and unidentified - insurance company to examine claims retroactively in order to find loopholes in hopes of abruptly canceling them. He was told to pursue large claims in hopes of scoring a huge financial savings for his company. At the end of his segment, he muses on how much he does not regret leaving his job behind. There is also another insurance worker that is interviewed that breaks down from the anxiety of relating one story of how she could not bring herself to tell a woefully optimistic elderly couple that they would never - under any circumstances - get health coverage.
One of the film’s most interesting - and potentially courageous - crusaders is a woman doctor, Linda Peeno, a former health insurance reviewer for a company named Humana. Before a Congressional hearing in 1996, she tearfully recounted how she denied a man "a necessary operation" back in 1987 in order to save her company millions. Her actions caused the patient’s death, but made her employer richer. She's been emotionally poorer ever since.
All of this begs Moore and, I guess, ourselves to ask one painfully inevitable question: What in the hell is wrong with the U.S.? For a nation that is easily one of the richest and most productive in the free world, it stands number 37 on a list of the earth’s worst health care countries (right in front of Slovenia). Why can’t this country - with its endless economic resources and infrastructure - look after its sick and dying?
Perhaps this is why SICKO is one of Moore’s most curiously apolitical works of social advocacy. Whereas his other documentaries pointed fingers squarely at political parties and figures, SICKO is kind a refreshingly new rabble-rousing and button pushing Moore in the sense that there is undeniable universality to his themes and messages. It does not matter if one is a Democrat or a Republican; both parties obviously would see the desperate need for US health care reform. This film is a strong bit of propaganda for any party to seriously invest some time and energy into it.
There are people dying left in right in the US and clearly at the expense of health care providers that are royally screwing them. So, why does the U.S. not have a prevailing universal health care system like...say...Canada? Perhaps it’s the fact that is seems like a Socialist concept, which gives politicians a bad taste in the mouth. Yet, American society is ripe with state funded programs (firemen, policeman, and teachers are, in most cases, free), yet with health care it's an undeservedly different socio-political matter.
It simply boils down to the unlimited power of drug companies and insurance provides. When bodies like this have the power - as the documentary rightfully and wisely points out - to topple high ranking people like former first lady, Hilary Clinton - who once championed massive health care reform - and tell her to "shut-up", then you just know that health care problems seem almost unsolvable. Clinton herself emerged as the second highest recipient of campaign contributions from - you guessed it - the health sector.
Moore does offer perceptive on the other "socialist" universal health care of countries by visiting Canada, France, the UK, and finally Cuba. Although I think he somewhat over-glorifies these nations’ health care infrastructures without probing much into their subtle inadequacies (it seems like Canadians, in the film, mostly wait under an hour for emergency room care, but my personal wait times of 4-5 hours prove otherwise), he nevertheless strikes the right note with pointing out why they are so strikingly superior.
Some of these trips emerge as the film’s most hilarious sequences, as is the case where Moore goes to UK hospital corridor where a sign that says "cashier" is revealed not to be a area to collect money from patients; it instead pays out to patient’s for their traveling expenses to the hospital. There is also another funny montage where Moore rides shotgun with a 24-hour French house call service where a doctor with a company called SOS Méédecins visits patients. The doctor takes calls all night like a taxi driver. Finally, Moore visits some Americans now living in Paris and is shocked to see how good the standard of living is in the country when compared to the States. What he inescapably learns is that these countries simply have a better standard of living and a longer mean life span for their people.
The film’s coup de grace is a grievous and appalling story of some 9/11 rescue workers. Many of them risked their lives attempting to save victims at the Twin Towers, but since many of them were working outside of their jurisdictions, they were refused health care based on a lame technicality. What’s even more obscene is how Moore discloses how members of the same terrorist-cells that plotted 9/11 are given better health care at the Guantanamo Bay detainment camps than the 9/11 rescue workers.
Curiously what Moore never mentions is the fact that all alleged enemies of the U/S. that are detained - in accordance with the terms of the Geneva and Hague Conventions - must be given health care. Yet, this is a modest oversight in the sense that he uses this as another bullet to put in an already smoking gun. What happens next is pure, vintage Moore. He decides to take all of these neglected 9/11 rescuers, get them in a boat, sail to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, and beg for the same treatment for them that the "evil doers" are receiving.
Predictably, no one answers Moore’s request. However, after he rants through a megaphone, a siren is heard which makes him and his entourage steer clear. Since they have no chance to get help in the detainment camp, and since they are already in Cuba, Moore takes the crew to Havana where - to his utter astonishment - they receive free hospital stays and advanced treatment, all by simply given over their names and date of births. That’s it.
One woman in particular is greatly moved by her Cuban stay. She has a $1000 per month disability, but her inhaler medication costs nearly $300 every four weeks. In Cuba it costs pennies. No doubt, it could be said that Moore exploits this woman’s grief and pain to its fullest, but he at least does so for an important and noteworthy cause. And not only that, but the woman does get the help she needs...not to mention that she is given some of that inhaler medicine for nickels and dimes.
Moore has always maintained a reputation for being a showman and one that utilizes convenient facts to help his cause. Yet, he’s less an objective documentarian than he is a highly subjective, emotionally invested, editorial journalist in his films. Works like FAHRENHEIT 9/11, ROGER AND ME, and his finest hour, BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE, all revel in Moore’s predilection towards pushing bottoms with whatever means possible. One can question his methodology and choices in his films, but there should be no denying the raw sentiment and evocativeness of his films’ messages. Whether you love him or hate him, Moore is one of the eminent satirists and filmmakers of his generation and he daringly investigates polarizing issues that others fail to.
SICKO is no exception.
Perhaps the most memorable aspect of Moore’s film is that it displays a bit more urgency, sincerity, and serenity than his other politicized, volatile, and oftentimes corrosive films. Displaying a keenly sensitive voice and a uniquely off-camera - for the most part - presence, Moore is able to probe deep into the dilapidated health care system that permeates the United States and reveals all of its hellish paradoxes. Yet, no one should mistake SICKO for a kinder, gentler Michael Moore documentary. Despite the fact that it may not be the equal to BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE and ROGER AND ME, his blunt, not-so-subtle, and purposely one-sided investigation into SICKO’s underlining material is still as suggestive, alluring, and thought-provoking as ever. Perhaps the one thing that this film does better than his others is that it shows how ordinary lives are devastated and ruined by a country’s incessantly cruel health care policy of "Do no harm...unless you have a big, fat check book." In a way, this makes SICKO Moore’s most bipartisan work. It does not draw political lines. It asks the parties to walk over them in an effort to heal a system that has been on critical life support for too long.
M I C H A E L M O O R E
CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY (2009)
ROGER AND ME (1989)