“What these Americans have could happen to us. And this is frightening.”
Michael Moore’s Sicko begins with clips of what happens to Americans who don’t have health insurance. A man accidentally slices off two finger stubs, and lacks the money to sew both of them back on, so has to choose between the two, as in the biblical Solomon tale. A woman in tears shows photos of her husband who died of a treatable leukemia because he could not pay for the treatment.
Then comes Moore’s humorous announcement: enough of these clips! For this film is not about the people who do not have health insurance, but about those who do. This slant is what gives Moore’s movie such phenomenal impact. Those who have health insurance are often in the same boat (literally, as we see at the end of the movie) as those who do not. The U.S. health insurance system is predicated on making sure people get as little reimbursed health care as possible: this is how it works. Moore has an eye-opening sequence of interviews with health insurance agents who explain how they are trained to deny claims.
As a creative and explosive exploration of how bureaucratic, manipulative, and corrupt the health insurance system is in the United States, Sicko is both powerful and necessary. It pinpoints the logical consequences of the belief that “health is not a right,” the slogan University of Chicago medical students adopted a decade ago in an organized protest against possible health insurance reform in Congress.
And as usual with a Moore film, the film tries to deconstruct the mindset behind the problem. The bulk of Sicko is an attempt to debunk the common myths and stereotypes Americans have about other countries that have adopted universal, government-sponsored health care, like Canada, France and England. Au contraire to popular belief, not only are citizens with socialized health care far more tranquil than their American counterparts, their health care may be as good if not superior. As Moore likes to emphasize: Canadians live three years longer, and infant mortality is far lower. And pace money-hungry doctors: Canadian M.D.s even have two cars!
Sicko is nonetheless conspicuously flawed, and this is what journalists picked up on at Cannes, honing in sympathetically on the flack the film is likely to receive once released on June 29th.
First, in making socialized medicine look rosy, Moore deliberately fudged some of the facts. Canadian journalists protested in the press conferences that he was wrong, there are long waits for doctors in Canada. It is not as painless a process as Moore shows, in his one filmic foray into a Toronto waiting room. With love, one Canadian noted: “But why why why, Michael, did you exaggerate? There is no need to make our system look l00 percent perfect. This makes you vulnerable to attack! Protect yourself. I have been telling you this for years!”
Along the same lines, why does he make Cuba — notorious to both left and right as the country where citizens are so miserable they complain to foreigners under trees, afraid of spies — the flagship country of superior health care? Yes, the film ends with a high-risk boat escape to Cuba, where Moore paddles three rescue workers from 9-11, who could not get health coverage in the U.S. for their post-9-11 injuries, to ask doctors in Guantanamo to treat the American heroes as well as they do the “terrorist” prisoners they house.
The brilliant wildness of this surprise ending — where the rescue workers get amazing treatment not from Guantanamo (where they are refused), but in a public Cuban hospital — is what makes this film an emotional masterpiece. It is also what makes Moore open once again to attack. Why push Americans’ buttons so much? By flagging Cuba as a Mecca, he’s bound to be booed as a sell-out Commie, and this about a country that not even Communists would uphold as an ideal.
Moore, sporting his trademark baseball cap, fielded objections with earnestness and flair at the American Pavilion in Cannes. He was one of the few — indeed only — directors at Cannes who actually went back and forth with the journalists, saying: “Can I ask you a question?” This technique, which the more savvy of the Cannes world avoid (why bother engaging with the public?), is what makes Moore seem so at one with his project. He wants his debate to be alive.
He argued back:
“I am making a movie. I am not writing a book. I have a 108 time frame. What you call oversimplification, I call a whopping good way to tell a story, which leaves no one bored. Wasn’t it disingenuous of the press journalist the other day in Canada to talk about his 98-year-old mother had to wait four hours for an emergency? Only when I probed did he admit that it was nothing to do with triage. The story was not true. I think you Canadian journalists are telling stories about the over-wait time in Canada, but are not telling the truth — which comes out when I probe your objections!”
Besides, a movie is a movie. “It is not my role to be a policy maker. I am a filmmaker and I make movies. I would like to talk about being a filmmaker, the process of making a movie. I am not writing a book. I am making a movie. I am very careful about the facts in the film. The facts are accurate. A fact is a fact. If I say that there are 50 million people without health insurance, I am giving you a fact. Nine million children are uninsured, that is a fact. But if I say private health insurance should be abolished, that is a conclusion I have reached, that is an opinion. I feel that I and my crew have done such a good job of fact checking, beyond whatever you do for your publications. I am rarely sued. The brother of the Columbine bomber sued, and that’s it. If I said something that was wrong in my movies, trust me, they would come at me in all directions. But they don’t. The only way the critics can come at me is to come after my opinions, not the facts.”
The facts are the facts, but the storytelling is his design. Moore was quite open about having been deliberately manipulative in his film in order to draw in his target audience. I objected that his portrayal of France — fudged to make it look far more upper-class and posh than it is for the average French person — was predicated on American consumerist values. Why, if he was adverse to American selfishness, did he use these same American values to paint a glossy picture of a foreign country, which itself rejects those very values in its own rhetoric? Why did he show the “average” Parisian family to be living on 8,000 euros a month, which is four times the average salary in France? Why did he show a doctor having two cars in a city where most people I know — in the “real” middle class — do not even own one?
Moore’s response: “This film does not primarily deal with the poor, as I say at the beginning of the film. I wanted to talk to middle-class Americans who think that everything is hunky-dory; I wanted to show people in other countries who are comparable to the American middle-class audience. I wanted to show a middle-class doctor. I want the American audience to see themselves in this. My sister in California is a schoolteacher who makes $4,000 dollars. Times two is $8,000 dollars. I admit: this is not a film about the people I would normally champion.”
Indeed, in his filmed interview with “typical” American ex-patriots, I recognized my former student Katherine from AUP, a 40,000-euro-a-year posh university in Paris, not even the typical ex-patriot, let alone French citizen.
Moore was less open about the tweaking of his ending, where he secretly subsidizes the health treatment of the wife of his enemy, the creator of “MooreWatch,” by sending an anonymous check for $12,000. Ostensibly a charitable act, it is first and foremost a strategy of the playground: playing holier than thou to get the upper hand. This Moore would not admit. He did it as a kind act, objective and without personal benefit — without, he said, any intention to later use the ploy in his film. But then of course he did.
Despite its over-the-top broad strokes, the film was a powerhouse in the festival and one of the best screened this year: it had universal acclaim — and absolutely urgent value. “There are 50 million people without health insurance, and this is patently wrong,” says Moore. And the ones who have health care might just as well not.
Besides, Sicko is not just for American middle-class audiences. European journalists leaving the movie mused: “This film is an eye-opener to us. We are considering severe changes in our own health care systems — in Germany, in Holland, in France now with Sarkozy — and this film is a warning to us not to go the American way. What these Americans have could happen to us. And this is frightening.”
Moore on the Guantanamo issue
“The Bush administration is now investigating the rescue workers we took to Guantanamo. I was stunned they would go after the rescue workers. They went for medical treatment. It is really shameful. I want to say this publicly. Go after me, go after film, but leave these individuals alone. I can’t say how we got there. We did not make any arrangements with the officials at Guantanamo. We first approached the Bush administration last October. They kept putting us off. Finally six months later, in March, we decided we would go as journalists. Any journalists or support person could go. Therefore we went legally. They did not know that we were going by boat.”
“While we were in Cuba, we asked for the same medical care for the rescue workers the same that you are giving Guantanamo. We would have taken these rescue workers to any military basis that the U.S. had around the world. Cuba was not our decision; it is the Bush decision. They put Guantanamo in Cuba. No, this was not propaganda for Cuba. It is a very good health system, perhaps the best in the third world. Even when the camera was off, the intake person acted well towards patients. The Cuban patients we interviewed were getting care comparable to the care our rescue workers were getting. If you speak to the rescue workers, you will hear how grateful they are for the care they are getting.”
Moore on France:
“As for the system in France: I did say there was a problem there. I do say that the French are drowning in taxes. Americans do not want to pay taxes, and I do not blame them. What do they receive? We don’t like the idea of the government running a hospital. In France and Britain, the taxpayers see tangible results, and we do not see that. If Americans actually saw tangible results, they would be willing to pay. We as Americans have to change our mindset: are we willing to stand in line so that everyone can share in medical care? No. I don’t want to stay in line. I want it now. I don’t think this kind of mentality has served us well. I think we have to learn how to share. People say America is a Christian country. I would like to see that. The more we do that, the better off people would be.
Moore on Canada:
“Yes I do have a rosy view of Canada. I am American. A baby has a better chance of living in Canada, people live three years longer. What is wrong with me saying that? It boggles me that you can’t just say: here is an American who appreciates Canada! Why don’t we talk about the larger issue about how the Canadians collectively made a decision that health is a right: and I am saying we should aspire to that. We are so inundated in the U.S. about how horrible the Canadian system is, how long the wait is, how people are dying on a gurney in hallways, the propaganda we are faced with day in and day out, and now you have one person saying, I don’t think so, I don’t think it is that bad! I think it is actually pretty good. Yes there are problems. It is there in the movie.
Moore on Moore:
“Don’t be frustrated about people picking on me. People are going to pick on me forever. I can take it. I will be making this kind of work forever.”