British viewers can only witness – and not fully appreciate – Michael Moore’s ‘Sicko’, so strongly is his latest slice of peppy agitprop intended for folk in his own land. This can’t be stressed too much. For if anyone in these isles mistook Moore’s new film for a balanced, erudite essay on the American healthcare system , they could rightly accuse Moore of distortion, self-aggrandisement, emotional blackmail and all the other qualities that we’ve come to know – and love – from Moore’s particular brand of filmmaking. As it is, you suspect that ‘Sicko’ has all these elements in droves, yet still you’re glad that the film exists and may even find yourself cheering or shedding a tear at its more demagogic moments. It’s only later, when you emerge into the light, that you find yourself hurriedly adjusting your trousers and a small amount of guilt starts to flow.
‘Sicko’ is a quieter, more focused and less feral beast than its predecessor, ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’, but that’s not saying much. Moore takes 50 minutes to lumber into view, which, on a first viewing of the film, I took for a new modesty. Most probably, though, Moore’s early absence – the voiceover is very much his own – is for other reasons; he must find it more difficult to film in public these days.
One also wonders: has he come to depend more heavily now on other interviewers and researchers than his own legwork? Whatever the methods, the point of the film is a strong one, well-made: the profit-motive of American health insurance is killing people. Moore sidesteps the issue of millions of Americans not even being able to afford proper insurance and instead fires unease straight into the heart of employed, financially comfortable, secure middle-America. Moore presents case after case of those who have suffered from insurance companies finding ways to wriggle out of the deal. He’s good on the underlying values of the system too, offering an amusing episode in which he traces the roots of the reds-under-the-bed fears against ‘socialised medicine’, even tracking down a 12-inch record that Ronald Reagan made to help the cause.
It’s when Moore crosses the pond and starts to compare the American situation with the perceived Nirvana of the British and French systems that any European viewer will have to start biting their tongue and chanting: this is meant for less-intelligent Americans, less-intelligent Americans, less-intelligent Americans . . . for whom the entire concept of ‘free healthcare’ was always demonised as a Soviet method of mind-control. Of course, as we know, our NHS has its own problems, but they’re not Moore’s concern: why ruin a good rant? Mostly, Moore keeps to his simple, but important, task of comparing the benefits of government-run healthcare with that operated by private enterprise and destroying some popular myths about ‘socialised medicine’. The film’s worst chapters come at the end with two very stupid stunts, one involving a trip to Cuba and another involving Moore footing the medical bill for the wife of a vocal critic.So familiar now is Moore’s heavy-handed style of persuasion that when a film called ‘Manufacturing Dissent’ arrived in our cinemas last week and accused him of distorting one of the central thrusts of ‘Roger & Me’, his film about unemployment in Flint, most critics were willing to shrug their shoulders with a resounding, ‘Aw, shucks.’ We shouldn’t be so complacent: a good cause doesn’t justify iffy means. Yet you would have to be very naive to watch Moore’s films, this one included (which is less obviously wild and hysterical), and not see through his methods. In fact, that’s part of the pleasure; a groan here, a heartfelt nod there. And, for us Brits at least, ‘Sicko’ is worth it just for the sight of Moore wandering around Hammersmith Hospital looking for the cash till.