I saw Michael Moore's new movie, "Sicko," last week and had a chance to ask him a few question and listen to his Q & A with the audience at the Seattle premiere. One of the most remarkable things I heard — and had to check to make sure it was true — is that the movie reviewer for Fox News called the film "brilliant and uplifting." It's true.
Filmmaker Michael Moore's brilliant and uplifting new documentary, "Sicko," deals with the failings of the U.S. healthcare system, both real and perceived. But this time around, the controversial documentarian seems to be letting the subject matter do the talking, and in the process shows a new maturity.
Moore's take on America's health-care system is less about Moore than his previous documentaries about GM, school shootings and the Iraq war. He says he wanted it that way and hopes the movie shows his growth as a filmmaker.
Sicko is Moore's best movie yet. (For the record, I've not been a huge fan.) He has a knack for finding sympathetic protagonists and without the focus on his CEO-bashing antics, the characters in "Sicko" get a chance to emerge more fully. I learned some things about the United States' health-care system. Most interesting was the bit of secret tape the movie includes with Richard Nixon talking about the new health insurance scheme being pushed by one of his influential campaign donors. The next day, Nixon unveiled his plan, which set the course for HMOs and managed care.
The movie builds to a classic Moore prank. He takes a group of patients — 9-11 rescue volunteers — to the prison at Guantanamo Bay after hearing that terror suspects there get first-class medical attention. He then diverts the flotilla to Cuba, where the patients are greeted warmly and given top-notch treatment, and at little cost.
Moore told me that while the movie is no less political than his earlier work, "It's less partisan. It's not Democratic or Republican because illness knows no political stripe." I had to wonder about that in the film's opening scene, which is a full-screen shot of President George W. Bush saying something silly:
"Too many good docs are getting out of the business. Too many OB/GYN's aren't able to practice their love with women all across the country."
But the politician who Moore hits the hardest is his old crush, Hillary Clinton. He's almost erotic in the telling of Clinton's attempts to push a new health-care bill while her husband was president. He admits in the narration he found Hillary sexy and smart and says, "Some men couldn't handle it."
But later in the film he details how much money Clinton has taken from the health-care industry, which he says "bought off Hillary.'' In his first book he admitted to his "forbidden love for Hillary" and that made it particularly hard to make her a target. He said in the Q & A:
"It was kind of depressing to point out the awful truth about Hillary, because I have actually liked her for a long time. ... But between her votes for the war and taking these contributions from the health-care industry, she's broken my heart. I'm disappointed in her. ...
"I'm hoping making this film will give her pause to think about things, because I do believe in her heart she knows what's right and I'm hoping she'll do the right thing."
The movie drifts far afield at times. Moore focuses much of "Sicko" on how poorly the U.S. health-care system compares to the government-run programs in Canada, Britain, France and Cuba. But the France part in particular starts to feel like a promotional film from the French tourism bureau. France is paradise in "Sicko," a place where the government does good, doctors can still live the high life, vacations are long and everyone is beautiful. The government will even do laundry for new mothers.
Moore uses bits of old Soviet propaganda film to make fun of the U.S. view of socialism. (I think that's the point.) But there are moments where his film itself seems a bit propagandistic. It was only in the Q &A afterwards that Moore mentioned France may not be perfect. He brought up the fact that thousands of elderly French died during a summer heat wave. But even there, he said, there is a fundamental difference between the central goodness between the French and us Americans.
"They're human beings just like us, and they went off on their holidays and forgot aout their old people. But the difference is that they felt an immediate sense of shame and then they collectively decided to do something about it. I personally haven't felt much shame about New Orleans in the last 48 hours or 48 days. And let's be honest, my friends, when is the last time you talked about New Orelans to your friends and neighbors.
"That's who we are. And that's what I'd mainly like to see change about us as a people, to start collectively to feel a responsibility for everyone. If one of us gets sick we all suffer. If one of us loses our job we all suffer and until that changes, I don't think these other things will change."
I kept going back and forth on whether the film was uplifting. It seemed Moore wants it to be. The movie urges people "to be good to each other" and think "We, not me," and predicts, "A better day is coming."
But Moore seems weary. And despite those cheerful aphorisms — and the one where he urges people to eat fruits and vegetables and take walks like he now does — he can't muster much good to say about the long-term effects of his earlier films. He told the audience in Seattle:
"Personally, I'm worn out. It's 18 years since Roger and Me. I made that film in the hopes that people would pay some attention to what corporate America was doing, specifically General Motors. Now General Motors is ready to file for bankruptcy and Flint isn't the only town destroyed.
"Bowling for Columbine — Democrats won't even touch the gun issue now. It's like they can't bring it up. And school shootings continue.
"Fahrenheit 9/11 — We're in the fifth year of his war. We defeated the Nazis and the Axis powers in less time than it's taken for us to secure the road the airport to downtown Baghdad. And we went to war based on a lie and I can't think of any greater crime against humanity. Well, I'd say it ranks with genocide and slavery to lie to people to start a war."
His optimism now is rooted in the belief that "Sicko" will reach more people, even his former critics. In 2004 Moore was booed out of the Republican National Convention. The reaction to his presence was so virulent he had to be escorted under tight security from Madison Square Garden. But he says that the Weinstein brothers who produced "Sicko" have tested it with Republican audiences and "the scores have been through the roof."
"So I'm actually hopeful and somewhat guardedly optimistic that enough people who were told not to listen to me before, or that remember me as the crazy guy at the Oscars who in the fifth day of the war said that we were being led to war for fictitious reasons, now know that we were led to war for fictitious reasons and will say, 'Well, OK, I don't like the ball cap, but you did seem to hit it on the nose there, so maybe I'll go see this movie or buy a ticket to Spiderman and then sneak into it.'"
No Moore movie is without controversy of course. His trip to Cuba is under investigation by the Treasury Department. There are questions about its accuracy, and from France, complaints that he's soft on socialism. The Cubans, though, apparently like the movie.
"Sicko" opens June 29.