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'Sicko' Diagnosis

Moore or less, can America heal itself?

By Dorothy Woodend 29 Jun 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend reviews films for The Tyee.

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Michael Moore.

Watching Michael Moore's Sicko, I couldn't help thinking about Star Wars. Following the arc of the Star Wars trilogy, perhaps the United States has turned the corner past The Empire Strikes Back territory, into The Return of the Jedi.

The shift to the left, the dumping of Donald Rumsfeld, the rise of the Gore-Obama-Clinton posse might herald the return of reason, the vanquishing of evil (or maybe not), and in reality this is probably good. But in terms of drama, it's a little on the disappointing side. When the forces of darkness begin to crumble and fall, the story always gets a little less interesting.

I don't know exactly why, but the darkest moment, when the battle is terribly uneven, when all that the good guys have is a few pathetic old fashioned weapons like jokes, squirting flowers, and fart bombs to throw against the very real bombs of the opposition -- that's simply more exciting.

Sicko offers still plenty to get riled up about, but the firebrand ire of Fahrenheit 9/11 seems to have mellowed a little. Fahrenheit came out just when the current U.S. government easily recalled Darth Vader and the gang. The Rebel forces were only a ragtag little bunch, biting the ankles of the Empire.

In this scenario, Michael Moore almost resembled the strange love child of Jabba the Hut and Han Solo, a wiseacre with a heart of marshmallow and a belly to match, a man not above fudging facts upon occasion. No matter, it was the right film at the right time, and it won hearts and minds.

HMO phobia

In Sicko, Bush and the boys take a back seat to another even more evil empire -- the HMOs. Health Maintenance Organizations are insurance companies that basically run the health care system in the U.S. privatization...what a hoot!

When Moore invited people to send him their sad stories about health care in the U.S., before long his e-mail in-box was overflowing with a mixture of tragic comedy that might give Kafka pause. Who could think up this stuff? It is a veritable legion of ludicrous horror stories: people routinely denied the right to life; cancer patients with no access to chemo; a man who has cut the tops of his fingers off, and had to choose which finger he could afford to save; or worst, a woman whose toddler died when they were turned away from a hospital by their insurance company.

Instead of focusing on people with no insurance, Moore sets his sights one rung up the ladder, to the people who actually have health care, and in some cases, are probably worse off. Manacled by debt, stuck in jobs they're afraid to leave because they'll lose their benefits, and devastated by illness -- these are people so pole-axed by tragedy that they look like cows headed into the abattoir, the same mournful gaze, slightly confused, resigned.

It is the sense of despair that clings to you after you finish watching Sicko. It was the same look in the people who waited in vain for their country to help them in Louisiana, until they floated out to sea, hope fading as the water rose all around them.

Canada's cameo

Moore trots around the globe from France to Canada to Cuba and everywhere he goes is dispensing medicine more fairly than does the U.S. The Canadian component is particularly cartoonish, even though you can't help but feel a swell of pride at the mere mention of Tommy Douglas.

Some critics have made the point that Moore's polemics are no longer needed since the shift to the left is underway, and the democratic candidates have already begun to promote the notion of universal healthcare. But that's beside the point. Moore's role, whether you love him or hate him, is to make information widely available, and understandable to the American people, who even if they don't vote and are utterly politically disenfranchised, probably still watch a lot of movies.

The film deals with some profound ideas, like what does a government owe its citizens, and what does it mean to live well (in all senses of the word)? The most critical notion it engages with, however, is the idea of value.

Sicko opens in theatres on Friday, but the film is widely available for free in lots of places. The director supposedly encouraged people to pirate the movie, and many folks took him up on his enticement. The version I watched was posted by a California Nurses group. The notion of offering the film gratis is interesting in light of the fact that the idea of 'free' is cited very often throughout the film. "You mean it's free?!" asks Moore in mock incredulity till you feel like kicking him, but the point is implicit. Aren't there some things that ought to be beyond the grasping fingers of commerce?

It's an idea examined in a recent Harper's Magazine article, Army of Altruists: On the alienated right to do good, by David Graeber. He makes the point that, "What is really at stake here in any market economy is precisely the ability to make these trades, to convert "value" into "values."

Dose of anger?

Some would argue that that altruism is at the heart of the American experiment, a sentiment that is put to the acid test in Sicko with the presence of 9-11 volunteers, people who gave of their time and labour at Ground Zero, and suffered terrible consequences. Moore takes a small group of these people on a boat ride to Cuba, where they're offered medical treatment, and more importantly, perhaps, comfort and kindness. It's a bit maudlin, but the sentiment behind it still kicks you in the gut.

America is the very best and the very worst all rolled up together, its history peppered black with human rights abuses, injustice, and violence. But the forces of darkness have long been fought against by some truly astounding people.

In an essay for The Nation, James Lee Burke writes: "I believe every individual has a special place in his or her heart that he or she creates out of the aggregate of that individual's experience. I liken it to a stained-glass cathedral visited by the people who are emblematic of our lives, the virtues and qualities we hold dear, even the weaknesses and the frailty of moral vision that give us our humanity. The special place where I live is full of Americans who to me are heroic: Dorothy Day, the Maryknolls who were martyred in El Salvador, Molly Brown, Joe Hill, Thomas Jefferson, Woody Guthrie, the women and children who died in the Ludlow Massacre of 1914, Audie Murphy and Flannery O'Connor."

Watching Moore's films, you sometimes get the feeling he is speaking to a nation of children -- the slow cadences, the folksy observations, the easy sentiment. Does this condescension undermine his message, or simply amplify it for Americans who want someone to tell them in the simplest terms possible exactly what happened to their country? It depends on your point of view, and if you'd like a balanced look at Michael Moore himself, the documentary Manufacturing Dissent opens at the Vancity theatre on July 13th.

But Moore or less, Sicko points out this curious moment in American history. Namely, where's the anger? Why aren't people enraged by what has happened to their country? Where's that good old American revolutionary spirit? Perhaps people who are sick, afraid, demoralized and in debt are far easier to govern than a healthy, perky, sassy populace.

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