directed by Michael Moore
by Walter Chaw There's a moment that stands out in my mind about Fahrenheit 9/11, which tied with The Passion of the Christ as my pick for the worst film of 2004 (one for the left, one for the right): it's the moment when Michael Moore, in the middle of a riff about the "coalition of the willing" backing the United States into Iraq, descends through archival footage and rinky music to mock the countries that were actually our allies. The point being that America pretty much took matters into their own hands while breaking international law and flaunting its power over a largely impotent United Nations--and the effect being that Moore is a complete fucking asshole so concentrated on making a narrow, obvious point that he handily proves the widespread perception of Americans as xenophobic, arrogant, ignorant, and loudmouthed. Going after the Bush administration is enough like shooting fish in a barrel that most of Bush's own party has turned against him (not helping, probably, is that a majority of soldiers losing their lives in Iraq come from economically-disadvantaged families). Likewise, going after lax gun-control laws and a society of fear following the Columbine High School shootings; likewise corporate superciliousness in the rise and fall of industry in industrial America. I think, in other words, that Moore has made a living shooting fish in barrels, and that his latest target in Sicko, the United States' inhuman health care industry (and its lobbyists--four per congressman!, Moore informs), is just another one of those arguments no one is taking the other side on.
It doesn't make the conversation non-essential, but there's a tangent in the picture that has Moore sending conservative blogger/Moore foe Jim Kenefick a check for twelve grand to help pay for Kenefick's medical expenses that makes my stomach turn in that unique Moore way, since it's not altruism but rather exploitation at its ugliest. For all the horror stories, for all the sharp jabs at both sides of the aisle, and for the brilliant bit where former British Parliament member Tony Benn suggests that the reason we don't have a few heads on pikes is that we're scared, demoralized, and stupid--for all that, the enduring feeling from Sicko I'm leaving with is that Moore is a complete fucking asshole. The right steps are taken here, though, at least for the first two-thirds of the film, as Moore fades into the background and lets his carefully-selected anecdotes lead us towards conclusions that any compassionate human being has already drawn. Nobody could, in their right mind, not shudder at the tale of an infant who dies while its mother searches for a clinic that will take her shitty HMO insurance, or the guy who gets to choose which finger to keep of two because he's only covered for one. But because Moore is the guy shooting the picture and offering his increasingly-unconvincing everyman narration, it's impossible to not be completely suspicious of everything at every step along the way. Moore is the most important documentary filmmaker of all-time because he has the broadest audience. And unlike his closest competition (Leni Riefenstahl), more than any other documentary filmmaker in history, he has exposed the fallacy that documentary filmmaking bears any more relationship to truth than any other medium or genre.
Politically, morally, I'm inclined to be full bore behind the revelations in Sicko. I enjoyed Moore's trips to France and Canada and England; the best part of Bowling for Columbine for me was the trio of Canadian slacker teens who, when asked if a civilized nation has a responsibility for the health of its citizenry, responded with incredulity that the question would be posed. Still, while it might just be me, I find Sicko completely useless as either education or activism--if Michael Savage or Ann Coulter did a picture exactly like this, did this picture, I'd be left with the same taste of suspicion in my mouth. It's a shame that Moore has a track record of manipulating facts, of ambushing interviewees, of megalomania and self-aggrandizement, because when he says something that's actually powerful and important, it's slowed by skepticism and buried under childish cartoon interludes and silly music. No crime in trying to entertain as he edifies--I simply wish that every overwritten bit of mock-surprise didn't make me cock an eyebrow at those instances where he actually crosses the aisle and pinions Hilary Clinton for first being a champion of the dream of universal health care, then accepting big bucks from the health industry lobby during her senatorial run. The cynic in me looks at that as another example of the Clinton-ian Democrat willing, GOP-like, to do what it takes to get into office; the idealist in me looks at it as another example of how the powers-that-be get away with killing us because we're scared, demoralized, and stupid. The problem with Sicko isn't that it's wrong, it's that the messenger has become too much like the powers-that-be: trafficking in fear and bullying, and so wrapped up in some personal power trip that the right message is buried under a carefully-cultivated cult of personality. Originally published: July 4, 2007.