In the space of merely a few years, director Michael Moore has seen his reputation morph from “the guy who made documentary films truly popular” to “the guy who plays fast and loose with the truth.” His moment of greatest triumph at the box office — “Fahrenheit 9/11,” which raked in some $120 million, an unprecedented sum for a documentary — was also something of a failure since its target, U.S. President George W. Bush, was re-elected several months after the film’s release.

Moreover, the film’s success impacted Moore’s career in several ways: One, he could no longer employ the ambush-interview tactics he’d made a trademark — any politician or businessman knew to drop everything and flee at the mere sight of a portly man in a baseball cap wielding a microphone; and two, his overt entry into the political arena meant his films were put under the microscope more than they had been before, and many people took issue with his selective presentation and massaging of the facts.

That hasn’t changed in Moore’s latest, “Sicko,” which is a stinging indictment of America’s broken and patently unfair health-care system. Moore has an easy target — how else can you describe a medical-insurance system where the profit-driven goal is to not pay for patients’ care? — but he still can’t refrain from loading the dice.

Director Michael Moore
Run Time 123 minutes
Language English
Opens Opens Aug. 25, 2007

While Moore’s notoriety prevents him from catching people like Charlton Heston off guard these days, it does have advantages. When he posted on his Web site looking for people who were having problems with their HMOs (Health Maintenance Organizations, i.e. private-sector insurers), he was deluged with replies.

Moore offers us such unbelievable cases of HMO deviousness as a woman who was taken unconscious from a car wreck to a hospital, only to find later that her treatment would not be covered because she had not phoned for pre-approval! Such outrageous, logic-bending denials of payment are all too common in the United States — as anyone who has lived there will attest — and Moore throws a fistful of them at us.

Story after story tells of truly ill people who are denied treatment and/or payment for it, such as a cancer patient whose insurance is retroactively revoked because when she applied, she forgot to say that she had once been treated for a yeast infection. Nevertheless, as a “pre-existing condition,” that’s grounds for losing your policy.

Moore paints an insane picture of a Kafka-esque world where being ill disqualifies you for health insurance. He interviews ex-industry employees, who discuss the techniques insurers use to deny coverage. For example, among the doctors on HMO review panels who must approve treatment, bonuses are paid to the doctor who denies the most claims. One effective device is when Moore puts on the screen a list of the medical conditions that can make you ineligible for insurance: the list scrolls on endlessly like a “Star Wars” intro and, in fact, almost any medical condition you can think of, major or minor, is in there. And this, of course, is on top of some 50 million folks who have no insurance anyway.

“Sicko” poses the question: How did the United States get into this miserable state of affairs?

Moore takes us back to the Nixon era, where he unearths one of Tricky Dick’s notorious White House tapes. We hear an aide introducing the HMO concept to the president, describing them baldly as “a private enterprise deal. All the incentives are towards less medical care, because the less care they give them, the more money they make.” To which the president replies: “Fine.” Cut to the prez on a TV broadcast a few weeks later promising better health care to Americans; the hypocrisy is mind-boggling.

Moore then traces things through Hillary Clinton’s failed universal health-care initiative in the 1990s, and on into a comparison with the socialized (socialist, say the Republicans) health-care systems of Canada, England and France. It’s here that Moore drops the ball.

While his point that universal coverage works fairly well is valid, he paints far too glowing a picture. There are plenty of stories of Brits traveling to other countries in the European Union for dental care and such, and Moore’s knee-jerk tendency to speak up for the oppressed apparently doesn’t include, say, visiting France’s banlieue to interview North African immigrants about what they think of French health care; instead, he interviews a bunch of yuppies.

Fortunately, “Sicko” closes with one of Moore’s over-the-top stunts, and it’s a killer, one in which he nails the government’s utter hypocrisy. On the one hand, he shows us the “heroes” of 9/11, firefighters and other first-responders who suffer serious medical conditions from breathing the toxic cloud that arose when the Twin Towers fell. Many are unable to get treatment approved by insurers, and the government won’t help them either. Moore takes a few of them on a boat to Guantanamo Bay, where the military has boasted of the free, first-rate health-care available to its imprisoned “terrorists.” He pushes this stunt even further when, denied access to Guantanamo, he gets America’s “heroes” some free medical care in Castro’s socialist Cuba.

The ridiculousness of this situation is well worth pointing out, and no matter how full of himself he may be — and the closing moment of “Sicko” surely demonstrates that — I’m glad we have a Michael Moore.

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