I should be working, but I can't stop thinking about Sicko, Michael Moore's new film, which (last night, but not this morning) could be viewed in its entirety here. (I link because it says that the video may become available again. I doubt it. I did download it, however, and will share it, so long as you have some server space to spare.) Why can't I stop thinking about it? Because it embodies everything that infuriates me about Moore. Before I say why, let me outline what it does well. It is devastating as propaganda. Only someone who's been denied coverage because doctors and lawyers quibble over the difference between "cured" and "in remission" can believe in this cause as I strongly as I do. Which cause is that?
We already have socialist programs in America: police and fire departments, public schools, libraries, &c. Moore points out that just because they're not called socialist doesn't mean they're not socialist in spirit. They are. With the exception of talk surrounding home-schooling and vouchers, no one is calling for a return to the days of private armies. (Not that they don't exist, only that there's no outcry that our military is too inefficient to get the job done, and that it'd be better if privatized.)
Long Lines, Poor Care
Moore does a fantastic job debunking the central myth of socialized medicine: that it leads interminable waits for routine procedures, and that even when performed, they are not up to American standards. As anyone who's ever known a Canadian or British citizen living in the US has long known, they find the quality of care in the United States abominable. They complain about the long waits for simple procedures—not in the hospitals themselves, but for insurance authorization, statements of coverage, and then the interminable ex post facto wrangling about the procedures covered. That all takes time, which Americans conveniently forget when convincing themselves of the superiority of our system. As for the quality of care, while there's an argument to be made that advances in medical care require profit incentive, there's no argument that for 99 percent of all problems, adequate treatments exist. Better is better, you'll get no argument from me there, but I doubt medical researchers will stop their work if it suddenly becomes only extremely as opposed to obscenely profitable. (As Moore documents in the case of a British M.D. who only drives one fancy car, lives in a house which only costs one million dollars, and only has one high definition television.)
Treatment of 9/11 Survivors and First-Responders
Most outside of New York are unaware that many private individuals rushed to the Twin Towers on 9/11. They were not N.Y.P.D. or F.D.N.Y., they were medical professionals, or from police and firefighters from New Jersey, who answered the dispatchers' calls for any and all trained personnel to respond. And they did. As you may or may not know, almost everyone who worked on the pile in the hours, days and months after 9/11 now suffers from a host of lung and mental illness. Federal, state, and city officials have been slow to acknowledge the fact—as recently as September of last year, Mayor Bloomberg said "I don't believe that you can say specifically a particular problem came from this particular event"—and slower to act upon it. If you think the N.Y.P.D. and F.D.N.Y. have had difficulty finding and paying for the treatment of their own, you can imagine how difficult it is for the unaffiliated first-responders to do so. That he then takes them to Cuba is propagandistic gold: the whole sequence of military officials assuring Congress that the prisoners at Gitmo have access to the best care money can buy, that they are treated humanely, positively stings when juxtaposed against the plight of first-responders (official and unofficial alike). They would receive better treatment if they'd been captured trying to kill enlisted men and women in Afghanistan. Some crucial differences are downplayed, but the point plays beautifully.
Nixon: Still Evil
Not sure elaboration's necessary, but I will say this: Nixon was thinking man's evil. Moore's juxtaposition of Ehrlichman and Nixon's conversation about how an HMO works ("all the incentives are toward less medical care, because ... the less care they give them, the more money they make") and Nixon's description of it the next day is powerful. It hammers home the difference in the incentive systems between the US and England, in which, apparently, the pay rate for doctors increases based on the health of their patients. (I'm not sure this is true, and it seems oversimplified and likely to create its own set of malicious disincentives, but that's how it's presented, and it's quite effective.) To reiterate, however: Nixon's still evil.
No matter what you think of Moore, you know there is a national health-care crisis. You know the system is broken, and you know the current group of health-care providers wants it remain broken. You know they hire people to sift through applications to deny coverage, and that even once covered, people must fight to receive the treatments they need (oftentimes even after they've been approved). The needless deaths of the working-class Americans portrayed in the film are consequences of the health-care industry's bottom-line mentality. The man who died of kidney cancer after finding a bone-marrow match and the man whose job it was to scour applications for unreported illnesses so that his company might void coverage for an undocumented yeast infection from 1991 are symptomatic. No matter what you think of Moore, you know the problems he points to are valid and endemic. That said:
I don't mind cheap (but effective) showmanship. Anonymously paying the founder of Moore Watch $12,000 so he can pay to keep the site up and his wife insured is both classy and opportunistic. Such is the life of the showman. Bringing victims of 9/11 to Gitmo so that they might retrieve the same quality health-care as the terrorists works. Bringing them to a Havana hospital for treatment? Not so much. It has long been known that foreigners paying in hard currencies receive preferential treatment in Cuban hospitals. Despite the benefits brought about the emphasis on preventative medicine, one of the highest doctor-to-patient ratios in the world, and the availability of cheap generic drugs, Moore neglects to mention that he was taking advantage of the system, that the people with him only received the treatment they did because they weren't Cuban. Just as I was furious when I learned that he had met Roger while filming Roger & Me, I'm pre-incensed at his future revelation that he knew all about Cuba's medical tourism industry. In both films, he overreaches, providing his detractors with ammunition against him. He undermines the valid points he raises about the outsourcing of American jobs and the crisis in American health-care for what can only be seen as narrative goals. He wants the perfect ending, the perfect finish, the perfect irony. He doesn't need it. When I taught literary journalism, I convinced my students, and myself, that the most human story is human by virtue of its imperfections, by the way its mundane realities defy the simplistic narrative conventions of the Hollywood hack. Would that Moore could learn this.
UPDATE: Gerry Canavan notes that if this encounter is the foundation of my criticism of Roger & Me, my criticism may be unfair. He says that because I lacked a little clarity. It's not that Moore met Roger Smith while filming the movie—the film was in preproduction at the time—it is that he never offers his ambushing of Smith at the GM shareholders meeting because doing so would provide Smith with an understandable reason for refusing to meet with him. It is not because Moore is a man of the people, but because a few months previous Moore had publicly hectored him, so Smith knew what was coming, i.e. he was smart enough not to decline an invitation to his own lynching. This is different from what Moore did in The Awful Truth—those corporate executives didn't know what was coming, and avoided him on (poor) principle—so the series hammers home the impression that the same thing was done in Roger & Me. (Again, this may be the former journalism teacher in my quibbling over minor details. Having twice taught a journalistic ethics class will do that to you.)