Saturday Night At The Movies
Touch Me I’m Sick
By Dennis Hartley
Oh, Michael-you are such a pill.
Our favorite cuddly corn-fed agitprop filmmaker is back to stir up some doo-doo, spark national debate and make pinko-hatin’ ‘murcan “patriots” twitch and shout. Unless you’ve been living in a cave and have somehow missed the considerable amount of pre-release hype, you have likely gleaned that I am referring to documentary maestro Michael Moore’s meditation on the current state of the U.S. health care system, “Sicko”.
Moore grabs our attention right out of the gate with a real Bunuel moment. Over the opening credits, we are treated to shaky home video depicting a man pulling up a flap of skin whilst patiently stitching up a gash on his knee with a needle and thread, as Moore deadpans in V.O. (with his cheerful Midwestern countenance) that the gentleman is an avid cyclist- and one of the millions of Americans who cannot afford health insurance.
Moore doesn’t waste any time showing us the flipside of the issue-even those who are “lucky” enough to have health coverage often end up with the short end of the stick as well. A young woman, knocked unconscious in a high speed auto collision and rushed to the ER via ambulance, was later denied coverage for the ambulance ride by her insurance company because it was not “pre-approved”. She ponders incredulously as to exactly how she was supposed to have facilitated “pre-approval” in such a scenario (so do we).
The film proceeds to delve into some of some of the other complexities contributing to the overall ill health of our current system; such as the monopolistic power and greed of the pharmaceutical companies, the lobbyist graft, and (perhaps most depressing of all) the compassionless bureaucracy of a privatized health “coverage” system that focuses first and foremost on profit, rather than on actual individual need.
I know what you’re thinking-kind of a downer, eh? Well, this is a Michael Moore film, so there are plenty of laughs injected to help salve our tears. Most of the levity occurs as Moore travels abroad to the socialized nations of Canada, Britain, France and Cuba to do a little comparison shopping for alternate health care systems.
Much of the vitriol and spite aimed at “Sicko” seems to have been triggered by this aspect of the film. Indeed, the film has only been open for a week, and already the wing nut comment threads are ablaze with about a million variations on “Well if you think it’s so much better than America then why don’t you just move there you big fat Commie traitor.” (In his typically sly, self-aware fashion, Moore leads into his Cuba segment by weaving in footage and music from vintage Communist propaganda films; knowing full well that those with small minds will undoubtedly take the bait and completely miss the irony.)
The classic Moore moment in “Sicko” arrives as he sails into Guantanamo Bay with a megaphone and a boatload of financially tapped Ground Zero volunteer rescue worker veterans who are all suffering from serious respiratory illnesses. After learning that the Gitmo detainees all enjoy completely free, round the clock medical care on the taxpayer’s nickel, he figures that the state of the art prison hospital wouldn’t mind offering the same services to some genuine American heroes. Of course, the personnel manning the heavily armed U.S. military patrol boats in the bay fail to see his logic, and they are unceremoniously turned away.
Undeterred, he decides to give the Cuban health care system a spin (while they’re in the neighborhood-why not?) They are welcomed unconditionally, and receive prompt and thorough care. Is it a propaganda move by the Cubans? Probably. Does Moore conveniently fail to mention the “minuses” of the Cuban health care system (or the Canadian, British and French systems for that matter)? Sure-but who cares? The “plusses” greatly outweigh the “minuses”, especially when compared to the current health care mess in our own country (at least he’s showing enough sack to step up and give people some alternatives to mull over). Moore makes his point quite succinctly-the need for health care is a basic human need. It should never hinge on economic, political or ideological factors. As one of his astute interviewees observes, it is a right, not a privilege.
In fact, this may qualify as the least political of Moore’s films to date. Consequently, it may disappoint or perplex some of his usual supporters, especially those who always anticipate that a Moore film will give them a vicarious “let’s go stick it to The Man” thrill ride. Things are not so black and white this time out; the issue at hand is too complex. I don’t think there is any filmmaker out there who could sum it all up (tidy solutions and all) in less than 2 hours, but Moore has done an admirable job of scratching the surface, and most importantly, he manages to do so in an entertaining and engaging fashion. After all, isn’t that why we go to the movies?
Rated Rx: Hospital (1970 documentary), The Hospital, MASH, Britannia Hospital, The Doctor, Lorenzo's Oil, The Kingdom, Young Doctors In Love,
…and a special programming note: On Friday, July 13, Turner Classic Movies will be airing a triple bill featuring The Hospital (1971), The Interns (1962) and The Young Doctors (1961). Break out the rubber gloves and the popcorn…stat.
I'll let Dennis give the full run down on "Sicko's" plot since he does that sort of thing so well. I'll just cut to my impression of the film and what I think it means.
First of all, it made me cry and a Michael Moore film has never made cry before. I've laughed and cheered and certainly gotten enraged, but even through all of those emotions in this film --- and there were plenty of them --- I remained choked up. I just couldn't get past the idea that people could make these life-ending and life-ruining decisions about other people --- for profit. It's so fundamentally at odds with what I think of as normal human empathy that on some levels it seems akin to being a concentration camp guard or an executioner. (And from the emotional reaction from those who'd worked in the industry and had quit, it takes a toll those with empathy who are asked to perform that dirty function as well.)
There is one story in the film of a woman whose husband was denied a bone marrow transplant allegedly because it was an "experimental procedure," --- is one a thousand excuses health insurance companies use to keep from having to provide care for those whose premiums they eagerly cashed in the years before their customer got sick. But I think what got me about that particular story was the fact that this woman worked in the hospital where the board of directors of this managed care company also worked. She spoke to them personally. She wasn't just a piece of paper in an in-box. It was a real live person, a colleague and neighbor, literally begging for her husbands life ... and they said no. For profit. It makes me want to howl in pain and outrage.
(Apparently, the film is making the insurers howl too. Check out this post from Michael Moore today in which he posts an internal Blue cross memo. The rep they sent to see the movie and report back wrote: "You'd have to be dead to be unaffected by Moore's movie.")
The film shows that there are alternatives. As Dennis mentioned, the most contentious parts of the film are when Moore goes to other countries and finds that people there are happy with their "socialized" health care systems which feature some things that we can only dream of in America -- like house calls and thorough preventive care for all. It's bound to make the xenophobes and the American exceptionalists seething mad to think that there could be anything better in other countries than the sweet land of liberty, but if you've ever spent time outside the United States (which most Americans haven't) you know that there are many things other countries do better. We do not have a monopoly on high living standards any more than we have a monopoly of "goodness" even though many fellow citizens who've never left their home town will fight you to the ground arguing otherwise.
When the TB guy story was blazing I wrote that one of the most annoying things about it was that the guy said he was willing to put god knows how many other people at risk because he believed that he would die in a European hospital and had to get back to America where the health care was good. Aside from it being a thoroughly selfish act, it was just wrong. He would have had fine care in that Italian hospital and he could have arranged for transportation back to the states without endangering the lives of of all those strangers many of whom might not have had access to the superior health care he had at the end of the line. It's just a perfect illustration of the success of the medical corporate propaganda that says all these foreign health care systems are so inferior it's better to have inadequate access to or spend a prohibitive amount for American care than have universal coverage "like the socialists in France." This guy wasn't in Cambodia or Kenya --- he believed they would "kill" him in Europe and that's just nuts.
Moore's movie is actually quite successful in showing that people in other first world countries with universal care live very well despite the fact that they pay higher taxes for medical care (and other things) because --- they don't have to pay for medical care and those other things. The people who live middle and upper middle class lives as professionals don't lose anything --- and the society as a whole gains tremendously because those crippling worries are removed from all, the poor and middle class alike. I don't think Americans have any idea that they are not actually living at the top of the heap --- they think what we have is a good as it can possibly be, and it just ain't true.
"Sicko" is a surprisingly affecting movie, with its cast of people who you cannot look at and say they are dirty hippies, or losers or people who should have known better. They are regular Americans --- hard working people who had the bad luck to get sick. And the amazing thing is that they were almost all insured. (The stories of the uninsured are so horrific that you almost have to laugh at the idea that our system could be considered superior to the worst third world country by anyone.)
This movie is perhaps the opening salvo in a new movement for guaranteed national health care. I hope so. We don't need to reinvent the wheel. There are a variety of health care systems out there that work better than ours does for less money. All we have to do is be willing to set aside our misplaced pride and admit that this isn't working and we need to do something about it. There are experiments all over the globe with universal care --- we can pick among them and find something that's right for us. Even business is getting ready to jump on board because these costs are starting to kill them too.
When I left the theatre here in liberal Santa Monica, there were people outside handing out literature. But I hear it's happening all over the country and people are begging for information about what they can do. If this film does anything it will bring home to people that they are living in denial if they think they are safe because they have health insurance. The fact is that in America, the insurance companies incentives are designed to kill you if you get sick. It's really that simple.
If people really care about being the best, they need to understand that this country will never again be "the best" as long as that continues.