Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Michael Moore Strikes Again
As with most films these days, I didn't get to see Sicko in the theatre. I was working on the second Lost book in the summer, and as soon as it was done, I had my second child (I see a trend here...) So these days I just try to ignore the movie reviews and wait until it comes out on video... or, in the case of Sicko, for it to air on TMN.

I finally watched it on the weekend, and it was full of the usual Michael Moore stuff. When you watch a film of his, you must enter into the experience with caution, questioning his facts, assuming he's going to make things pretty one-sided, and expecting gimmicks, gimmicks, gimmicks. (Warning: in order to discuss the movie in detail, I give a lot of details of it below... beware if you are sensitive to spoilers.)

I remember the first time I watched Roger and Me, years and years ago before most people knew who Michael Moore was. I thought it was brilliant. Then he had a couple of television series, and they were just as fun as the film. This guy refuses to take No for an answer when requesting interviews, and he'll go to any length to get the brass on tape making fools of themselves.

And then Bowling for Columbine came out. I saw this one at the film festival in Toronto at the world premiere, and I still remember when they showed Canadians talking about why we don't live in fear and don't carry guns. The audience started snickering, then chuckling, and by the time the film got to the kid on the patio in Toronto saying, "We believe that if you lock your doors, you're locking yourself in, not locking the world out" the entire audience was roaring with laughter. When he showed the Esplanade in Toronto and said, "Welcome to the slums" (for any non-Torontonians, the Esplanade is NOT a slum, and is two blocks from our opera house, with tony restaurants, cafes, and bookstores) it was everything people could do to keep from throwing things at the screen.

But at its heart, Bowling for Columbine was still a great film. Sure, he made the blunder of showing an elderly frail man like Charlton Heston and making him seem like the root of all evil, when simply showing the footage of him making his legendary NRA speech would have been more effective. And he had that horrible moment where he stuck the poor kid in the wheelchair in K-Mart like some freak show on display just to help boost up the middle portion of his movie. But it still showed the sides of the argument, and he tracked down dozens of people to show just how far-reaching the problem was.

Then he became huge. His "documentaries" were bigger than most feature films, and he won an Oscar. Everybody knew who Michael Moore was. Fahrenheit 9/11 came out, and it just solidified his role as pop documentarian.

But, as with many people who find astounding success after toiling for so long, he started to ride those accolades and became lazy. He realized people loved the entertainment more than the didactic nature of his films, so why go to the trouble of tracking down the bad guys, when you could play some maudlin music and trot out more wheelchair-bound victims at K-Mart?

The result of this laziness is Sicko. Halfway through the movie we considered stopping it. Or watching it on fastforward. The point of the film is made about 10 minutes in. And then he just keeps hammering and hammering away at the same point. The American health care system sucks. Sure, they don't have to wait a year for a necessary MRI, but that's not because most people don't have health insurance, as we've been led to believe... it's because those who DO, are still denied the care they need by those health insurance companies. They can deny care based on the pithiest of reasons. In one case, they pay for a woman's cancer treatments, and then they find out she once had a yeast infection, and they retroactively change their minds, sticking her with all the bills. In another, a woman's 18-month-old daughter comes down with a fever of 104, and when she takes her to the nearest hospital and they check her health insurance, they find out it'll only cover care in one of their very few hospitals. The hospital refuses to take care of the girl, sending the mother into a frenzy, where she's kicked out onto the street with her child and considered a "threat" to the staff of the hospital. By the time she gets to one of the hospitals that the health insurance will actually cover, the child is in cardiac arrest, and dead a few hours later.

Yes, it's infuriating. And disgusting. And inhuman.

Then Moore goes to Canada to show what a wicked awesome system we have. He talks to his Canadian "relatives," who are planning a weekend visit to see him in Michigan and insist on buying travel insurance, saying Canadians will never leave the country without doing so. Whatever. Then he goes to London, Ontario (my hometown) to find out what the health care is like there. He shows people waiting in emergency rooms who get in after 15 minutes, and insist you NEVER wait longer than that. Bullshit. (Pretty much the word every Canadian uttered when watching that scene.) You could wait 6 or 7 hours just for a tylenol sitting in emergency. You could wait so long for an MRI that by the time they do it, the damage is inoperable (this happened to a close relative of mine).

The thing is, he doesn't NEED to make up this shit. Yes, wait times are long here. Family doctors are practically non-existent... you move to a new city, you're going to a walk-in clinic because GPs that are taking patients are so rare. (Many students train to be doctors in Canada, and then immediately go south of the border when they graduate because they make more money there... why they would prefer making a little more money in a place that denies coverage is beyond me, but frankly, considering their tuition is subsidized by our taxes, they should give the money back if they leave... end of soapbox.)
But would we take that service over a hospital turning away a baby because her mom's health care coverage only works at another hospital? Absolutely. Would we wait longer for that chemotherapy, knowing that when all is said and done, you don't have to worry about your health care "provider" finding out you once had strep throat and cancelling your coverage? Of course. He could show the pros AND cons of universal health care (longer wait times, higher taxes, no family doctor) and our system would still come out on top, and his point would be made without resorting to gross exaggeration.

On he goes to England to show their health care and how much their doctors get paid. True? Don't know, but now everything he says is suspect. They also have free dental care (but, um... there's a reason Lisa Simpson is scared into brushing on The Simpsons by looking through "The Big Book of British Teeth"). On to France, where he touches on their health care but then focuses on how daycare is free. True? Probably not, but he goes on at such length that is where we started fastforwarding. Isn't this movie supposed to be about health care? (At one point he wants to show what a hard-done-by family looks like in France, and he appears to go to the friggin' Ile Saint Louis. Come ON. That's like taking someone to the Bridle Path in Toronto and saying, "Welcome to the projects.")

And then we get to the part everyone was talking about when the movie was released... the 9/11 workers. These people volunteered to pull out bodies (and body parts) and work on those who had been hurt in the devastation. If they weren't actual city workers, they weren't given coverage, even if they had respiratory problems, migraines, nightmares, etc. They're now living in daily pain, with no help from anyone. When Moore finds out that the al Qaeda operatives who were key in the attacks are being held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, where the medical care is top-notch, he actually puts the people he's showcased in his film onto a boat leaving Florida and heads to the prison. (It's the bullet-riddled kid at the K-Mart all over again. Ugh.) By the time he grabbed the megaphone and begins shouting that they demand entry into the prison because these people just want the same level of care that they give the evildoers, I had my face in my hands and was cringing, saying, "No, Michael, no... just stop embarrassing yourself, PLEASE." It's definitely a low point in the film.

They (obviously) get nowhere there, so Castro's peeps decide to use Moore as their public relations mouthpiece and trot out how wonderful the Cuban people are and how amazing their medical system is. Full disclosure: I'm a Canadian. And therefore, to me, Cuba is a vacation spot just like Antigua or the Barbados. I went to Cuba a couple of years ago and I mentioned it to some American friends, who went absolutely silent on the phone and acted like I'd just told them I was visiting North Korea and staying at Kim Jong Il's palace while I was there. (In Cuba the Castros live high on the hog, and it's the rest of the people who are impoverished, mostly from the lack of American presence there, their closest potential trading partner. The place is gorgeous and the people are amazing. That said, it was nice to be somewhere with nary a Golden Arches in sight.) Moore gets some help for the people he's parading as the victims of the health care system, and they vow their undying love to the Cuban people for doing so.

And that... is pretty much it. We don't see Moore knocking on the doors of the drug companies and demanding to hear from the people making these sorts of decisions. Instead, he just shows some crappy old footage of a trial where one of the drug companies was asked a series of questions about denying someone's medical care, leading to their death. We don't see him sticking it to the man, and actually achieving something. Instead, the documentary is nothing more than a circus, showing us the way it is, without bringing about any sort of change. His melodramatic tactics have become even more manipulative... in the scene where the mother is telling the story of her 18-month-old daughter having a fever, he films her sitting in a playground with laughing children in the background, and one would assume he's going to cut to the child any minute. But instead, she gets near the end of her story and looks sadly at the children, then holds up a photo of her now-dead child. Thanks, Michael. Thanks for doing that to this woman. Those who think the health care system is a shambles will watch and say, "Wow, I was right. It IS a shambles." And those who are profiting from it can just ignore it, because he didn't actually parade any of their spokespeople in the film. Health care companies will continue to exploit the people who are paying into their insurance, and people will continue to be exploited. The film does nothing more than just conjure up anger for the viewer, whether you're American or not. If you're Canadian, you roll your eyes at the errors in his portrayal of Canada, and wonder where else he stretched the truth.

Michael Moore is no longer a documentary filmmaker. He's become too successful for such low fare as that. Instead, his films are creative non-fiction, meant to be questioned. And, if future films of his are anything like this one, it seems like his spark is gone. Moore would rather stand around holding a megaphone and cracking jokes than actually get the job done like he used to. And it's a shame, because Moore was one of a kind. And now... he's just like the rest of them.


Megan said...

Michael Moore creates propaganda films, not a documentaries. As long as you know that, they're fine. I got pretty upset while watching Sicko for the same reasons you did. I'm not sure how many Americans understand that the Canada he presents isn't real.

Stamford Talk said...

I fell asleep during Sicko. Everything you said in this post is basically what I thought, too.

I really liked his book and TV show "Adventures of a TV Nation." And, frankly, even if Sicko was shitty, I appreciate the fact that he brings issues to the forefront. His movies are popular, so we have a common source when discussing the issue- I was dozing during the Guantanamo scenes, but several people have mentioned it to me.

(Good golly I am just about to post, but the word verification is well-nigh impossible to read! What the heck, blogger.)