[17 June 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Get ready. It’s coming. And it’s gonna be LOUD! You think the outrage caused by Fahrenheit 9/11 was bad? You think the pro-NRA responses to Bowling for Columbine were bad. Well, fellow citizens, it’s safe to say that you ain’t seen nothing yet. Michael Moore is back, and with a little less than two weeks before his latest example of “docu-ganda” (as his critics would call it) hits theaters, the groundswell of hyperactive handwringing is already in full flummox mode. For those who are unaware of the filmmaker’s latest screed, SiCKO tells the woeful tale of America’s medical insurance crisis. Not from the perspective of those without coverage. No, they’re the real lost causes. Moore isn’t after the easy target this time. Instead, he has taken aim at the bloated bureaucracy surrounding the nation’s numerous health care and pharmaceutical companies, and how it harms – and even kills – many of its supposedly indemnified customers.
As a result, pundit power is already working overtime debunking the film. Of course, that’s kind of tough to do when it’s yet to see a wide theatrical release (you had to go to Cannes to see the most recent screening). But in what many are calling a grandiose publicity ploy on the behalf of Lionsgate, the full length feature somehow was ‘leaked’ to Internet file sharing sites (or P2P protocols as they are known), giving anyone with a bitTorrent program and a relatively fast DSL line the opportunity to bootleg it. Add this to the already tenuous position taken by the Federal Government over the filmmaker’s last act trip to Guantanamo Bay and other points inside Castro’s Cuba, and you’ve got a mole hill waiting for the prerequisite media dung to help fertilize it into an untenable mountain. It won’t be long before the apologists and the activists get their prostylitizing panties in a nice big wad over the many inaccuracies, half-truths, and gross overgeneralizations the director determines are necessary to make his point.
Unfortunately, their fuel comes to an already raging inferno. Moore’s work post-Roger and Me is already a sideshow. Though many could have anticipated the carnival barker approach to its marketing, no one could have accurately predicted the unprecedented preparations to tear this man a new bash-hole. Naturally, it’s a division drawn down ideological lines (Conservative vs. Liberal, patriot vs. provocateur) and very much founded in a previous film that divided a nation. Fahrenheit 9/11 took on an incredibly popular President, argued against the leaders ‘security through force” scare tactics, and complained that America shouldn’t be invading a country that had no real designs on destroying us. Many called it treasonous and demoralizing to our fighting men and women. Even with the critical community under its belt, there were those who couldn’t cotton to Moore’s refusal to conform. What a difference three years makes.
Now, the focus is far narrower and more easily delineated. SiCKO centers its story on how the development of the HMO’s, and the privatization of medical care, created a crisis in coverage which literally destroys the lives of the very people it’s supposed to support. Horror stories of denied claims and wild, worst case scenarios are piled on top of already obvious dicta (insurance companies are in the business of making money) and governmental boot licking, resulting in a chaotic, corrupt system so steadfastly self-debasing that it really doesn’t need Moore’s help making it look bad. Indeed, what the filmmaker does here is basically call out the cads and have them readily admit their graft. The kicker is in the afterthought. It’s not that these companies commit these immoral crimes against human health. It’s that they do so with absolute – and in some case, law protected – impunity.
The second half of the film is a stroll through three competing socialized systems – Canada, England and France. Each one is presented like paradise on Earth, a place where no myocardial infarction goes untreated, where no late night fever lacks a free and easy cure. In the next few months, expect to hear citizens of these noteworthy nations debunking Moore’s many declarations. The Canadians are already up in arms (if ever so slightly) while Parisians in particular do not like the filmmakers definition of “average” (it’s in connection with a supposedly ‘middle class’ couple). By the time the Fall begins its annual blitzkrieg of cold and flu remedy commercials, the rest of the Westernized world will offer their two cents about universal health care and its many diverse elements.
But that’s not really the point with this latest round of rebuking. Moore, like outspoken auteur Oliver Stone, is a man better at the big picture than the multiple minutia that accompanies concepts such as facts and accuracy. No one is questioning the need to overhaul what is becoming a major financial, social, and emotional albatross around the neck of the world’s remaining Superpower. But because Moore makes his films out of theories first and statistics second, many like to undermine his truths without beginning to broach the core conceits. They somehow believe that if you can disprove some percentage of the veracity in Moore’s claims, the overall idea is invalid. Naturally, that’s bunk. The sky may not be purely blue (in fact, it is made up of many colors refracted and refocused by the moisture in the atmosphere – the tendency toward blue is the result of said reflecting), but calling it so is not a crime…at least, not inherently.
It’s like quarreling over semantics. Is France’s health care 100% free? Probably not. Do Canadians really have the wonderful, problem free universal coverage as claimed in the film? Most assuredly No. Is either system, from a purely fiscal approach to the patient, better than America’s cash machine mandate of money based acceptance/denial of coverage? Without a doubt. So why argue the potential faulty finer points? If you can agree on the foundation, do all the bricks have to be faultless as well? It may make for better debate, but since the opposition (the health care industry, the lobbyists, and politicians who kowtow to them) won’t be forthcoming with all their facts either, it seems only far to fight liar with liar. Yet it’s unreasonable to call Moore a fraud. In a country where expression is paramount among our rights, he is completely free to speak his mind. Equally, he must be open to those who will criticize and condemn his efforts, even when those assessments are more assertion than argument.
The current preemptive take on SiCKO is obviously a tactic taken from the unbelievable backlash experienced on Fahrenheit 9/11. In the case of the Republican Party, there was a need to protect a sitting president running for re-election. It was part of a strategy that guaranteed that no issue would set the campaign agenda unless the GOP were in complete control of it. In a far more damning documentary, Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern’s …So Goes the Nation, we learn that in the political trenches of each candidate, it’s war almost every second of every day. Anything and everything is fodder for advantage and opponent undermining. If, somehow, Moore had managed to gain enough credibility to sway the election, he’d have achieved a monumental democratic goal. Thanks to the massive machine in place, however, the movie had to settle for winning an international cinematic award. Toppling a soon to be unpopular war mongering President just wasn’t in the cards.
This time around, it’s all about money. Moore is doing to Aetna and Kaiser Permanente what he did to General Motors, except he doesn’t have to confront a bunch of CEOs to do so. He has hundreds of willing whistleblowers eager to expose the demoralizing practices they were part of just to earn a paycheck. In this case, the effect is more obvious and potentially potent. We see bleary eyed citizens crying, good and decent men and women whose lives have been inexplicably altered by the big bad robber baron of the 21st century – the insurance company. It’s the motion picture equivalent of shooting puppies. It may be manipulative, but it’s effective as all Hell. And better yet, it’s the perfect visual soundbite for a nation that needs its problems pitched at a text-messaging level of meaningful or they fail to register. SiCKO is a striking, nauseating, heart-wrenching, reactionary masterwork. That can’t be good news for the people over at Pfizer.
That’s why the repercussions have been so immediate and incremental. SiCKO is going to stir some response. It’s going to solidify the many grass roots consumer groups into one big voice of the people. It will more than likely be a topic on the tip of every candidates tongue as we enter 2008 and prepare for another pointless changing of the Executive Branch guard. On the other side, there will be those so lost in the jingoistic stance of the last seven years that they’ll be unable to tolerate the constant mocking of the US system (those pesky foreigners, they just love to hate us for our many liberties). They’ll milk the complicit media for as much screed time as possible, and Moore will have to appear on various chat fests to defend himself and his artistic choices. This won’t stop the conspiracy theorists for blaming each other over the film’s web appearance, nor will it defuse those already waiting for the 29 June play date to pounce.
While the leak does go to a wholly different issue regarding piracy, copyright, and Hollywood’s hopelessly outdated moviemaking model (which technology still trumps, damn those scientists), in this case, it also stokes the raging coals surrounding Moore’s most effective film to date. If the government was wise, it would back down from the bully pulpit and let the filmmaker have his medical days in the Cuban sun. In addition, the capitalistic cranks should also tone down the rebuttal rhetoric. It’s not like the multi-billion dollar health care industry needs their defending. Its got the money, and the connections, to secure its position. No, what everyone should be concerned about is the power inherent within the moving image. SiCKO may start a real people rebellion that could wrest this issue out of the hands of special interests once and for all. It may only be a movie, but it’s already having an impact. Just wait until it’s actually released.