- The Washington Times - Friday, June 29, 2007

Michael Moore has been proclaimed the savior of the documentary. He’s often credited with single-handedly reinvigorating the genre, bringing millions to the multiplexes for what used to be art-house fare.

His last film, “Fahrenheit 9/11,” is the highest-grossing documentary ever. His previous one, “Bowling for Columbine,” won the Best Documentary Oscar.

His latest, “Sicko,” is likely to replicate that success: Every sneak preview across the country last week sold out. Mr. Moore is still the big man on the documentary campus.

It’s too bad that “Sicko” isn’t actually an example of the genre.

In his look at what ails the U.S. health care system, Mr. Moore documents plenty of real-life horror stories — though without providing enough information to evaluate their veracity. In his exploration of health care in other countries, he doesn’t even bother documenting real life, but rather his own selective, misleading experience of it.

“Sicko” is not about the 50 million Americans who don’t have health insurance, but the 250 million Americans who do.

Actually, it’s mainly about a smaller subset of that 250 million whose insurance is a form of managed care. Many people — myself included — choose this type of insurance because it’s cheaper than the kind that allows you greater choice. In fact, that’s why HMOs came into being in the 1970s: skyrocketing health care costs.

You don’t get that information from Mr. Moore’s film, though. He implies it was a conspiracy between Edgar Kaiser and Richard Nixon.

Mr. Moore, like most propagandists, aims his appeals at emotion, and managed care offers plenty of sad, horrifying stories of people denied care by bureaucrats.

There’s the woman whose husband died because the insurance company considered the bone-marrow transplant that might have saved him an experimental treatment. There’s the woman sent an ambulance bill because she didn’t get the service preapproved in the minutes following her car accident.

On the surface, these stories are heartbreaking. But only on the surface, because that’s all Mr. Moore reveals of them. He systematically omits contextualizing detail and never once asks the insurance companies why they made the decisions they did.

Perhaps the most heart-rending tale is that of a woman whose toddler died. She took the child to the hospital with a fever. But Kaiser said she had to go to a Kaiser facility if she wanted the company to pay. The woman argued with the hospital, begging them to treat her child anyway. She finally gave up and went to the Kaiser center, only to watch her child go into cardiac arrest and die.

A gripping story — but is it the whole story? Was the Kaiser facility five minutes away, or 95? It matters because if it’s the former, the woman should have jumped into a cab instead of arguing; if it’s the latter, then Kaiser does look partly responsible for a child’s death.

While Mr. Moore selectively shows the worst parts of the U.S. health care system, he selectively shows the best of other countries’. Mr. Moore touts socialized medicine as the cure for our ills. He visits Canada, Great Britain, France and Cuba to show that every citizen gets the health care he needs when the government offers it for free.

Here, Mr. Moore becomes disingenuous to the point of disbelief. For the first time, we hear a few critical voices. There’s some mumbling about “longer wait times” in Canada. So Mr. Moore interviews a few people waiting to see a doctor and asks how long they waited — the answers range from 20 to 45 minutes.

But we Canadians who point out the longer waiting times there aren’t talking about how long you have to read a magazine in a waiting room. Last year, Canadians waited an average of 17.8 weeks between seeing their family doctor and receiving specialist treatment. That’s almost double what it was in 1993. Median wait times are almost double what physicians consider clinically reasonable.

Free health care never is; somebody has to pay for it. And to keep costs reasonable in the face of high demand for free services, the Canadian government rations health care. That’s why three years ago, the average hospital in the U.S. was nine years old and the average hospital in Ontario was 40 years old and why 83.2 MRI exams were performed for every 1,000 people in the U.S. and just 25.5 were performed in Canada.

No reason Mr. Moore would know any of that — the only Canadians he talks to in any depth are his own relatives. He didn’t manage to find any critics in Britain either, although an Ipsos poll last year found that 46 percent of Britons were dissatisfied with the National Health Service. Mr. Moore sees himself as a voice for the common man, but he simply wants to substitute one set of bureaucrats making life-and-death decisions for another.

Mr. Moore is a talented man. His gentle, singsong voice is perfect for sly narration. He is almost always funny when he sets out to be. The best bit here is when he details the great treatment given to Guantanamo Bay detainees. (Including colonoscopies, but I suspect that’s just part of the interrogation.)

Without showing how exactly he got there, he’s joined in a boat by some September 11 volunteer rescuers who can’t get free treatment in the U.S. “They don’t want any more than the evildoers,” he calls out in the bay over a megaphone.

Americans love going to the movies; they like being entertained in just the way Mr. Moore is capable of doing. If someone could serve that desire while smuggling in an honest appraisal of the U.S. health care system’s serious problems, we might see some real change. But Mr. Moore hasn’t diagnosed many of those problems, and he doesn’t offer any real solutions.


TITLE: “Sicko”

RATING: PG-13 (brief strong language)

CREDITS: Written, directed and produced by Michael Moore

RUNNING TIME: 113 minutes

WEB SITE:www.sicko-themovie.com


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