Love him or hate him (it usually depends on which political camp you’re in), there’s simply no denying that Michael Moore has done something no previous documentarian has really pulled off: He’s made documentaries popular. Well, he’s at least made his documentaries popular. Consider that the opening weekend figures project Sicko with a per theater average of $10,204 and Live Free or Die Hard with one of $9,727, and you get the idea. Of course, it probably doesn’t hurt that Moore generally gets high marks from film critics (after all, it’s a well known fact that we’re almost all card-carrying liberals—unless, of course, we’re talking about Kyle Smith from the New York Post), but that’s hardly enough to explain how it’s likely to outdo the new Bruce Willis actioner at the box office.
No, it’s really Moore himself that makes his films popular with his unique ability to make documentaries that are at once informative and entertaining. Even if you’re in the camp that seethes with anger over Moore’s politics (or possibly his very existence), you’d have to be in a state of extreme denial not to realize that Moore knows how to make a movie. For that matter, his very preposterousness works in his favor. Is he a showboater and a grandstander? Of course he is. He has to be in order for any of this to work. Do his films invariably boast some kind of gimmick with Moore at the center of it? Yes, they do, and while those gimmicks sometimes induce a slight cringe at Moore’s limited acting ability (Moore looking shocked at an answer he knows full well he’s going to get has worn thin), they always have a sting to them. In the case of Sicko, for example, you’re not likely to really believe that Moore is himself shocked and stunned to learn that an inhaler that costs $120 in the U.S. can be had by the patient for five cents in Cuba. (If that hadn’t been the case, the episode wouldn’t have been in the film, simple as that.) But you’re not likely to be able to ignore the $119.95 price difference—nor are you going to forget it.
As far as Moore’s latest assault on the status quo, you’re apt to find Sicko slightly less volatile than either Bowling for Columbine (2002), or the incendiary Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004). It’s a calmer work overall and less specifically politicized. Yes, this examination of the American health care system—its ties to insurance companies, drug companies and the U.S. government—is outspoken enough, and it very clearly ties much of what is wrong to Richard Nixon and the Republican Party, who presided over the creation of the HMO in 1971. (And this comes complete with audio recordings of Nixon liking the idea because it’s “for profit.”) But all in all, Sicko isn’t especially kind to either party. The film even goes so far as to note that first lady Hilary Clinton, who pushed so hard for universal health care in this country, became far more congenial with the insurance and pharmaceutical folks when she became Sen. Hilary Clinton. No one in politics comes out of this unharmed.
Another notable difference is the fact that Moore appears in the film considerably less this round than in previous films. He’s still there as the provocateur extraordinary. Someone has to ask the questions—especially when he’s checking out the health care programs in Canada, Great Britain and France—and since it’s a Michael Moore film, it’s going to be Michael Moore. And again, the setups are often clunky and obvious. You know beforehand that the National Health Service doctor in Great Britain isn’t going to live in a cold-water flat or drive a 1955 Morris Minor held together with tongue depressors and gauze, no matter how Moore dresses it up by way of lead-in. Moore tends to stay in the background in this film and let his subjects speak for themselves. In the film’s earlier scenes of Americans recounting their health care and insurance nightmares, he stays almost entirely out of the picture.
It’s only in the film’s most heavily publicized sequence—where Moore heads to Guantánamo Bay with a load of health-care victims in search of the same free treatment doled out to terrorists and suspected terrorists (and fails to gain entry)—that Moore puts himself front and center. Even here, though, Moore is surprisingly subdued (for Moore, that is), as if he realizes that it’s one thing to score laughs by painting a political figure as a buffoon, but quite another to do so with the sick or dying. Politicians and insurance companies can be hung out to dry—sometimes by simply dredging up aged scare-tactic propaganda films about the horrors of socialized medicine and the “inevitable” encroachment of communism it would produce—but Moore respects the ailing and the disenfranchised.
Does Moore present a skewed picture of socialized medical care? I’d say it’s more slanted than actually skewed, and that he downplays any downsides he found. But so what? Just because a system has its flaws, it isn’t completely invalid, and it’s better than no system at all—certainly better than not even having an attempt at a socialized one—or having a system that’s grounded in greed and corruption that delivers the least care possible because this benefits the shareholders. That’s Moore’s point—and arguing with such a point is pretty incredible. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language.