In trying to decipher how Michael Moore has achieved his widespread popularity in the face of a somewhat cavalier attitude toward factual precision, there's no underestimating his savvy choice of targets. General Motors, the gun lobby, George W. Bush: That's an impressive rogue's gallery by any standard, and if Moore has falsely impugned the reputation of, say, Dick Cheney, no innocent blood runs in the streets. His latest smear campaign, Sicko, has in its crosshairs the most reprehensible villain yet: the health-insurance industry, a numbers racket disguised as a medical service. I hate Providence, you hate Kaiser Permanente: How can anyone root for an industry that does no end of harm?
But Sicko also comes with what everyone agrees is a gentler, more reasonable Michael Moore. Like the politicians he shreds, Moore is attempting a reinvention of his persona. Recognizing that harassing corporate flacks and banging on D.C. doors annoys as many people as it persuades, he has cast himself as a matured voice of reason. Gone are the days of separating the sheep from the goats; this time, Moore wants the whole barnyard to unite behind universal health care.
To some degree, this tactical shift works. The first half of Sicko is a forceful complaint, in no small part because Moore's jolly, self-promoting face—like Santa Claus on a PR tour—is nowhere to be seen. Instead, we meet the victims of HMO deceit, who line up to tell wrenching stories of lost mortgages, legal loopholes and dead relatives. Their compelling anecdotes are juxtaposed with some authentically funny japes, including a list of uninsurable diseases stylized as Star Wars opening credits. (The proletariat strikes back, basically.) None of this could be mistaken by anyone with the slightest intelligence for a nuanced policy discussion, but it's an effective broadside, and fairly entertaining. It's also too good to last.
"The reformer is always right about what is wrong," the essayist G.K. Chesterton wrote in 1891. "He is generally wrong about what is right." Beginning a century later, Michael Moore has made a lucrative career out of proving Chesterton's point. (Let us all look back fondly on Fahrenheit 9/11 and its adorable children frolicking in the bucolic streets of Saddam's Iraq.) And it turns out that Moore has just as hard a time curing his own ailments. As Sicko drags into its second hour, he exchanges his old standby of hyperbolic accusations for a cloying credulity. Shouldering his way to the center of the screen, Moore visits Canada, England, France and Cuba, and in his travels makes some shocking discoveries. Canadian hospitals have short lines? Astounding! British doctors make house calls? Remarkable! The French government provides free nannies and carrot stew? C'est magnifique! Cuban officials are eager to provide comprehensive medical care to Americans with cameras? Splendid!
But what's actually amazing about Sicko is that a provocateur as canny as Moore is so disdainful of his audience. His idea of offering solutions is to accept, without question, the policies of other nations, and his ideal viewer is someone who is actually as naïve as he pretends to be. The movie reaches its nadir when Moore features the 1996 Congressional testimony of Humana claims agent Linda Peeno—a rather brave moment, actually, since she revealed how her bosses were betraying their clients—and Moore scores it to the lush, hymnal tones of Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings (you know, the music from Platoon?). Is this a joke, a clever parody of the manipulative power of propaganda? No, it's just very bad propaganda. And it reveals a man who, even when he's restraining himself, thinks so little of his admirers that he feeds them the most transparent sentimental appeals.
We live in a nation run by duplicitous scoundrels, and it's understandably tempting to rally behind a public figure who brashly challenges them. But in cheering for Michael Moore—a fake populist and an authentic liar—you're only rooting for another bad guy. As a country, we can do better than our current health care system. And we can do better than this movie. ?
Sicko is rated PG-13. It opens Friday at Lloyd Cinema, Eastport, Fox Tower.