By Bryan Newbury
June 25, 2007
“It is based on a recognition of the astonishing beauty of things and their living wholeness, and on a rational acceptance of the fact that mankind is neither central nor important in the universe; our vices and blazing crimes are as insignificant as our happiness. We know this, of course, but it does not appear that any previous one of ten thousand religions and philosophies has realized it. An infant feels himself to be central and of primary importance; an adult knows better; it seems time that the human race attained to an adult habit of thought in this regard.”
Preface, The Double Axe and
The words Robinson Jeffers unleashed in 1947 did not endear him to the established order of things, nor the public at large. While there is little to dispute in his logic, when applied to the cosmic order, The Double Axe likely sealed his demise in academic and critical circles. It is not good business to be against war in a time of hyperpatriotism. It is not good business to suggest that centuries of western philosophy and theology have been mistaken. It is most assuredly bad business to tell any audience, especially an American one, to grow the hell up.
It shows a good deal of bravery, but it ignores an essential truism about mass communication: no one likes the truth-teller.
No doubt Jeffers has rolled in his grave so many times over that Texaco has considered attaching a bit to his corpse to drill for some of those waning ounces of black gold. It is a curious debate to be had on whether Jeffers might have known that some sixty years hence, the world’s lone superpower would not only fall short of the mark in terms of cosmic awareness… it would extend its indifference beyond the world around, including the very people that its core philosophy held paramount.
This callous disregard for our fellow man seems to be the dominant theme emerging in the oeuvre of Michael Moore. Distilled to the essence, this is what Moore’s films have illustrated with outrage, humor and poignancy. If it is the indifference to the plight of the American and international working class, as seen in Roger & Me and The Big One; if it is the casual approach to gun violence in our culture of fear that Bowling for Columbine masterfully exhibits; if it comes in the voices of the helpless Iraqis in the jarring footage of Fahrenheit 911, the underlying message tying all of these elements is clearly that we just don’t seem to collectively give a damn about our fellow human beings.
Which brings us to Moore’s latest offering, Sicko.
Much of the media surrounding Sicko would lead the viewer to believe that this is an about face from the combative and, in the eyes of his critics, solipsistic filmmaking approach that has made Mike famous. If one only has the major media to rely on for a general idea, it would not be beyond reason for him to think that Sicko is a completely different ball of wax. Fox News gave it good reviews, for heaven’s sake.
True, Moore has polished his approach. The film doesn’t lose the real story, though in fairness it is hard to think of an example where Moore is more memorable from Roger forward than the subjects of his documentaries. The hubbub of the kinder, gentler Mike seems to be more a result of news outlets looking for an original angle (as opposed to reasoned reportage) and giving offerings at the precipice of the echo chamber. To the delight of his fans, and for some reason without the dismay of many of his detractors, Sicko is actually vintage Moore. His filmmaking has evolved, as is in evidence from the more subdued pacing of this latest offering, but isn’t that to be expected? Though fewer in number, the sardonic historical footage, replete with not-so-subtle allusions to our irrational response to L’ennemi du jour, is still present. The somewhat maudlin moments of empathy to his hard luck protagonists are as often as anything else in the Moore canon. Predatory capitalism’s vicissitudes are logged with the same force. George Bush says some very stupid things.
All the ingredients are there, but it could certainly be argued that Sicko delivers the message better than any of its counterparts.
For starters, the film begins with a twist. When it was revealed that Michael Moore was making a documentary on the health care crisis in the United States, most people likely concluded that it would concern the nearly 50 million Americans without health insurance. The opening passages deal with some case studies of this group. As we are told, though, “this film is not about (them).” The majority of Sicko deals with Americans suffering the effects of having insurance as we know it.
Sicko delivers a scathing indictment on the American health care system. Basically, the argument is made anecdotally. The story is that of Larry and Diana Smith, for whom medical debt meant relocating to their daughter’s utility room. It is that of Julie and Tracy, a Kansas City couple who suffers a tragic and unnecessary loss despite the fact that Julie works at and is insured by the very hospital refusing treatment for her husband. We see a bit of congressional testimony admitting to what seems obvious to anyone who has ever dealt with an HMO: the less treatment a patient receives, the better for the company. Insured, middle class people are dying without any reason.
That the focus tends to be more on the middle class than the working class might go far in explaining why this particular film is getting a much better reception than its predecessors. To take a quite utilitarian view, it could be said that this revelation is more jarring because we expect the poor in America to die from preventable disease. That the family in the Bedford, Texas subdivision with the two cars and boat are languishing despite a solid diagnosis and a proven means of treatment is news to many.
Basically, it works like this: to receive a reasonable standard of care, one must get through the application, with its plethora of conditions and red flags for preexisting conditions. Fair enough, but then the patient must be fortunate enough to sidestep the bean counters when care is pursued. Should he or she actually receive the treatment, said patient better hope there was no fudging on the application. If there was, and odds are in favor of that, then Aetna, Humana, Blue Cross et al, have people to investigate in order to recoup their cost. As one insider puts it, “We’re going to go after this like it was a murder case.” It seems like the people in Sicko would be the only folks out there who did trust the insurance racket. Many of us are rightfully cynical of the industry. Sicko succeeds in giving a host of concrete examples that reveal just how cynical we should be. (See: the Nixon tapes that spotlight the birth of the HMO and the health care industry parlance’s definition for a “medical loss.”)
True to form, Mike takes us again to our neighbors to the north. Naturally, Canadians display a combination of incredulity and empathy for our condition. It is a high bar, but this may be the best Canadian footage to be found in Moore’s work. The bogeyman of socialized medicine, with its long lines, substandard care and red tape, is roundly refuted. Beyond the frozen tundra, the viewer is treated to point-counterpoint examples of the health care apparatus in Great Britain, France and even Cuba, both Guantanamo and Fidel’s part of the island. All of these developed, and even underdeveloped, countries have universal, single-payer health care. They all seem to be working quite nice. The doctors are paid handsomely, people receive the care they need, and, in the case of Great Britain, the cashier is the guy reimbursing patients their travel expenses to the hospital.
France and Cuba serve as the clearest opposites. This is obvious, given the animosity Americans show towards the two countries. We need not discuss the social and political differences at length. Indeed, we shouldn’t. As the film clearly points out, maybe we should take some cues from both in order to shore up a health care apparatus that is callous to the point of sadism.
If the dominant note is indifference to suffering, the tonic is that of economics. Reminiscent of Moore’s observation in The Big One that layoffs lead to desperation and then possibly crime, which suits the system well because private prisons are performing the services of the laid off, Sicko paints the picture of the debtor nation hooked on pharmaceuticals to allay the stress of all the unseen consequences involved in the presumed agreement between our government and ourselves that you don’t tax and we don’t ask for services. This underlying theme could use further elaboration, but in a sprawling, information packed film of two hours, the lack thereof can be forgiven. Suffice it to say that Sicko might make us engage in a national conversation about whether or not this compact serves the population.
So, we return to a society in emotional infancy. Just as Jeffers lamented the shortsightedness of defecating in the nest, this film raises some serious questions about our priorities as Americans. If one stipulates that the rest of the industrialized world pays far more in taxes… and the contrary could certainly be argued on percentages… then the question that begs to be asked is “What are they getting for it?” The French welfare state is lambasted in our mainstream media circles, but what is the cost of our buy now pay later mentality? If you had to pay a little more, or demand that our government make better use of the billions it has to work with, in order to have education and medicine, would you? The average American household surely bears more of a debt burden than what it would cost to provide every citizen in the richest nation on the planet with the fundamental services the Canadian hegemon enjoys. As history will show, the only people with something to lose are the insurance and health maintenance industries that spent millions putting Hillary (Rodham?) Clinton in her place and subsequently spent nearly a million to keep her in their pocket.
This may mean that we might have to live in a house that isn’t twice as much as we need, eat right, exercise and either pay a little more in taxes or activate politically to hold our legislators accountable. Would that be too much to ask?�
The bad news, Mike, is that this would be telling us to put down the toys and grow the hell up. No doubt the denizens of our health care industry will combat this documentary with their own appeal to be a good citizen and keep shopping. It isn’t 2004, and we all know Michael Moore’s work can’t change the country. Let’s hope that at least this conversation will reemerge.
One can’t be sure of what consensus will be reached at the conclusion of the national conversation. The good news for Moore is that truth is on his side. The bad news… well, you might want to consult Robinson Jeffers.
Written, Produced and Directed by Michael Moore
2007, Dog Eat Dog Films