Whatever you think of Michael Moore—and who doesn't have an opinion?—the man has an impeccable sense of timing. His newest polemic, "Sicko," takes aim at our disastrous health-care system at a moment in the national debate when even the die-hardest boosters of free enterprise acknowledge that major changes have to be made, if not the free universal health care that most Western countries offer, and that we resist.
The "we," as Moore takes pains to show us, are the drug companies, the hospital industry, the bought-and-paid-for politicians and the health-insurance companies, the latter being the true focus of this alternately hilarious and heartbreaking screed. This time around, Moore spares us the spectacle of himself storming the offices of his villains, his camera ever ready to capture their clench-jawed embarrassment. He's more concerned with the victims—not the 50 million uninsured, but the much vaster numbers who have private health insurance, and suffer for it. We see their harrowing personal stories: the couple who have to sell their home to pay their medical bills; the woman who had to be rushed to a hospital in an ambulance who is then told—with a logic worthy of Kafka or Groucho Marx—that she can't be reimbursed for the ride because it wasn't pre-approved; the woman who lost her husband to cancer because her insurer deemed the surgery he needed as "experimental." And on and on, in one pungent vignette after another.
Moore traces the origins of this mess back to a 1971 meeting—astonishingly caught on tape—in Richard Nixon's White House, at which the president expressed his approval of Edgar Kaiser's proposal to maximize profit by offering less care. Driving home the modus operandi of the insurance industry is the angry, guilt-ridden congressional testimony of a former Humana Corp. medical director, who lays out "the dirty work of managed care," which rewards its employees for saving the company money, not for helping its patients.
Is "Sicko" one-sided? You bet. The globe-trotting Moore compares our broken system with the free health care offered by Canada, France, England and—in what has already become his most controversial flourish—Cuba, where he takes a group of 9/11 rescue workers for help they can't get at home. Because he paints in broad, simple strokes, his overly rapturous depictions of these systems are bound to raise skeptical eyebrows. (It's not hard to find horror stories in any country.) And even though you can easily imagine the Cuban's licking their chops at the PR opportunity Moore affords them, who could not be moved by the tribute the Havana firefighters pay to the American rescue workers who have come to their land for treatment?
The opponents of free health care love to raise the ominous specter of "socialized medicine." Why, Moore asks, in a very funny montage that turns a Soviet musical propaganda movie on its head, do we readily accept free schools, libraries, police officers and firemen but blanch at the idea of free medical service? Adopting his faux-naif, aw-shucks persona (still effective, if getting harder and harder to swallow) Moore, just as he did in "Roger and Me," asks us to contemplate the dark side of the profit system. And the thesis that ran through "Fahrenheit 9/11"—that the powers that be use fear and intimidation to keep us docile and compliant—informs every frame of his movie. The difference between France and the United States, one observer provocatively suggests, is that in France the government is afraid of the people and here, the people are afraid of the government.
It will be fascinating to watch Moore's enemies have a go at "Sicko." Certainly he leaves himself open to criticism. To make his point that the French don't have to be overtaxed to pay for their government-paid health service, he shows us the comfortable lifestyle of one happy French bourgeois couple. This does not exactly qualify as a rigorous argument. But if Moore can be irritating, he's also indispensable. I think this time around a lot of people who don't cotton to the filmmaker's politics are going to find themselves lining up on his side. The simplicity of "Sicko's" argument is also its power. It asks us, as Americans, a few basic but haunting questions: Who are we? What have we become? The follow-up question is left unstated: What are we going to do about it? Let's hope "Sicko" helps us come up with the right answer.