Review: “Sicko”

In the six decades since the Second World War, most Western countries have evolved into societies so similar as to be near interchangeable. Walking down a street in New York is little to no different than doing the same in London, Sydney, Vancouver, Paris, Geneva and so forth these days. Yet even in this day and age of global homogenization, there are notable cultural differences in various aspects – particularly in the United States. Whether it’s due to the more sizeable population or the more influential religious elements of the culture, there’s no sole defining reason for it – suffice it to say that as a non-US westerner, some American anachronisms to me seem delightful (free soda refills & .08 drink driving limits), confusing (imperial system & right-hand side driving), annoying (gay marriage bans, 18yo age of consent & 21yo drinking age) and downright barbaric (Guantanamo Bay & mass circumcision).

Most confounding of all though is the lack of universal health care, the very topic that informs Michael Moore’s “Sicko” – a film markedly softer in tone, but not in execution – from his previous works like “Bowling for Columbine” and “Fahrenheit 9/11.” Steering the narrative away from politics for the most part, the majority of “Sicko” is spent talking with doctors, patients and regular people about the deficiencies in the current US medical system – and the universal health care systems of other countries, notably Canada, England, France and even Cuba.

The result is Moore’s most humanistic film yet. The man still has an agenda to be sure, and his display of the facts remain somewhat tailored towards proving his arguments rather than being an objective analysis of the situation, but there’s a noticeable softening here. Rather than acting like a crusader for justice on a heavily divisive issue (eg. gun control, Iraq war), the Moore in “Sicko” is a curiosity-driven skeptic who keeps both the politics and judgments restrained (at least for him) in favor of personal stories of both an uplifting and horrifying nature. The ultimate goal seems to be pointing out flaws in a system that pretty much everyone, no matter what way they politically lean, is well aware that it is in need of fixing.

Whether a universal health care system will solve all the countries woes like Moore thinks, hard to say. The film does a good job of lambasting the pro-capitalist attitude that has lead to the current ineffectual system – and in doing so will hopefully knock down a few ignorant prejudices. Yet throughout it never fails to both entertain and engage thanks to a variety of fascinating interview subjects. Amongst them are Moore’s own delightfully eccentric Canadian parents, former British minister Tony Penn displaying the incisive logical intelligence and dry wit that comes with few great politicians, various Americans now living in France and singing the country’s praises, and the devastatingly sad story of hospital worker Julie and her late husband.

As a filmmaker Moore continues to hone his particular genre down to a fine art. For what is an admittedly depressing subject, he manages to turn dry statistics into often humorous or surprising anecdotes via the use of droll comparisons and archival footage. The various segues from the more biting swipes at Richard Nixon and Hilary Clinton to the touching if somewhat awkwardly book ended segment with 9/11 workers finally getting professional treatment in Cuba, hit home for both US viewers who will find their eyes opened, and foreign viewers who’ll both grimly acknowledge and mockingly laugh at the silliness of going without an institution they can often take for granted.

The sole undermining fault of “Sicko” is Moore’s rose-colored painting of other country’s medical systems as bastions of perfect function. Having traveled frequently to the States and having had my own expensive and for the most part ineffective run-ins with the US medical system, it’s a film that hits home for me – and the attitude of Moore’s parents is one I’ve been adopting myself for a while now (I don’t step one foot into the US without health insurance).

Yet living in Australia, about the only America-like country with universal health care that’s not mentioned in this doco, I can tell you right now that whilst it’s a great system it’s far from perfect and many of us still have private health insurance in any case. Every country with UHC still faces various problems of funding issues, range of coverage, medication costs, and the biggest problem of all – overcrowded and all too long waiting lists.

Still, it’s a minor bug that doesn’t take away from what is essentially one of the year’s best films. It sadly lacks the real biting edge that made ‘Columbine’ into such a great piece of work, but feels a more complete and thoughtful piece than ‘Fahrenheit’. Having dumped his partisan flavor and focusing on the common issues to all of us, “Sicko” is Moore’s most accessible and ultimately touching film yet.