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Sicko, Flawed But Brilliant

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I went to the Washington premiere of Sicko last night. If that wasn't enough of a Republican nightmare, afterwards I piled into the limousine of a prominent trial lawyer along with an official from a Democratic campaign and a TV executive. I can feel Tom DeLay shudder.

I thought it was a great film, flawed deeply, as Moore's films are but with an important message nonetheless.

As in all of his films, Moore is the main character. He floats from scene to scene, an everyman with his curiosity and his girth and his baseball cap. (In Sicko he sports a Rutgers cap in Paris.) He torments the powerful and embraces the fallen. In Fahrenheit 9/11 he hugged the mother of a fallen soldier, in Roger & Me, the displaced auto worker. Here it was those who have lost everything because of a health care system that leaves nearly 50 million Americans without insurance and most of the rest of us wondering what will be covered and what won't be and what would happen should we ever lose the insurance. As always, there are villains: In this case it's the HMO industry, the insurance companies, big pharma and the politicians who enable them.

Hillary Clinton, for whom my wife works, is praised for taking on health care and then skewered for dropping it after the Clinton administration proposal went down in flames. She's beaten up for accepting industry money.

As always, Moore accepts the simplest, most conspiratorial view of the world. In Roger & Me the decline of the American auto industry is the product of avarice, the greed of executives like former GM boss Roger Smith. The role of the United Auto Workers in the decline of the industry or federal policy that sustained the land yachts that were doomed by their smaller Japanese rivals goes unmentioned. Bowling for Columbine seemed to blame defense contractors for the murder spree of two Colorado adolescents. In Fahrenheit 9/11 the war is all about making money for Halliburton.

For Moore, heroes are flawless. He visits Britain and its free National Health Service and France and, now famously, Cuba to see the wonderful medical care provided to its citizens. As I left the theatre last night, a Cuba expert, who is very much for expanding relations with our neighbor to the south, tapped me on the shoulder to remind me that "there are terrible hospitals in Cuba." I wondered if Moore's next film would take him to Pyongyang.

But that said, Moore's on to something deep and true and powerful. The American health care system is a mess, on that we all agree. We are the only Western country that doesn't provide universal care and allows its citizens to descend into poverty if they face a life threatening illness. The horror stories in Sicko are all too real -- the woman who is denied reimbursement for an ambulance ride after a car accident because it wasn't "pre-approved," the insurance company that will pay for only one cochlear implant for a baby losing its hearing (until the father threatens to sick Moore on them). I wound myself a bit weepy when hearing the stories of Canadians and Brits who visit the hospital, get treated and walk out without ever seeing a bill and who are utterly bemused when Moore brilliantly asks them if their HMO signed off on their treatment or how they'll pay the bill. Moore asks the right question: Why can't we be free from this worry?

His affection for France and Cuba is where the film is the most strained. France's 35-hour week, five-weeks vacation, and lavish health care are praised to the hilt. Made before the election of Nicholas Sarkozy as president, there's no sense that maybe the French have paid a price for this kind of economic rigidity, that all this actually does have a cost, perhaps one that's worth it but a cost nonetheless. And the praise for Cuba, without a mention of its dictatorship, seems unconscionable. Batista is called a "dictator"; Castro is "a guy we don't like."

It's telling that in one scene, where Moore is interviewing an old British laborite who talks about the importance of taking care of each other, the camera pans fawningly on a mug that reads "Old Labor and Proud of It" and a plate with John F. Kennedy's likeness, an homage to an earlier Democrat presumably before the sell out Clintons. But later in the film, in Moore's reducto history of U.S.-Cuban relations, Kennedy is lampooned. The Cuban Missile Crisis is mocked as a figment of American hysteria. Suddenly, Kennedy isn't the saint on the mantle. I wished Moore had eschew this. He could have documented the business owner or corporate head saddled with huge health care costs, but that wouldn't have fit his world view.

Still, you don't have to buy all of Moore's politics to appreciate the film, the best Moore ever. His aesthetics have gotten more powerful. The decision to bring ill 9/11 rescue workers, pummeled by their injuries and stingy insurance companies, to Cuba for treatment is pure propaganda but it's also an aesthetic delight, at once funny and poignant. At one point, while walking through a British hospital, trying to find where people actually get billed, the ominous music swells when he finds a window labeled "Cashier." It turns out it's there to reimburse folks for their travel expenses to the hospital. The government not only pays for health care; it picks up the cab fare, too. In my head, I know there's no free lunch. In my heart, I couldn't help but laugh and be moved.

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