I know the storm awaits me back in the United States,” Michael Moore told a wall-to-wall throng of reporters here after the Saturday morning press premiere of his new film, “Sicko.” Then he heaved a deep breath and added, “But this is just so pleasant.”
It was indeed another gorgeous, summery morning on the French Riviera, but the real heat was indoors. There wasn’t a single empty seat inside the Grand Théâtre Lumière — which holds more than 2,000 people — for “Sicko,” and dozens of stragglers were locked out on the sidewalk. Moore’s screed against the outrageous state of American healthcare was received with uproarious affection, but one might argue that Cannes provided the softest possible crowd. An American left-wing populist, attacking America’s profit-motive, private-sector ideology before a roomful of international intellectuals, at least half of them Europeans. May I introduce a new phrase into the Franglais dictionary?
“Sicko” does not display Moore at his most cinematically inventive or imaginative. It presents a TV-documentary-style parade of episodes, characters and settings, bouncing from various American cities to Canada, Britain, France and Cuba (and yes, don’t worry, we’ll get to that). Moore plays a far smaller personal role in this film, appearing only occasionally in his comic-relief role as the clueless buffoon who can’t seem to grasp that healthcare in all those other countries is free, or virtually so. When he’s eating dinner with a group of Americans living in Paris who begin to list all the things they can have as free or nearly free entitlements — not just healthcare but an emergency doctor who makes house calls; not just childcare but a part-time in-home nanny — Moore puts his hands over his ears and begins singing “La la la la la.” (If you have kids or any kind of chronic family health problems, your reactions might include weeping in despair, slitting your wrists or booking a one-way ticket.)
Still, there is no mistaking the passion and political intelligence at work in “Sicko.” It’s both a more finely calibrated film and one with more far-reaching consequences than any he’s made before. Moore is trying to rouse Americans to action on an issue most of us agree about, at least superficially. You may know people who will still defend the Iraq war (although they’re less and less eager to talk about it). But who do you know who will defend the current method of healthcare delivery, administered by insurance companies whose central task is to minimize cost and maximize shareholder return? Americans of many different political stripes would probably share Moore’s conclusions at the press conference: “It’s wrong and it’s immoral. We have to take the profit motive out of healthcare. It’s as simple as that.”
“Sicko” purposefully does not focus on the 50 million or so Americans who don’t have health insurance, as scandalous as that is, but on the horror stories of middle-class working folks who believed they were adequately covered. There are so many of these they begin to blur into each other: the woman in Los Angeles whose baby was denied treatment at an emergency room outside her HMO network, and died as it was being transferred hours later; the woman in Kansas City whose husband was repeatedly denied various drugs his physician prescribed for kidney cancer, and who in the last stage of life was denied a bone-marrow transplant that could have saved his life; the woman who was told her brain tumor was not a life-threatening illness, and died; the woman who was told her cancer must have been a preexisting condition, and died.
One might respond that anecdotes like these have tremendous emotional power but little analytical rigor, but in this case I think we all know (and fear) that these worst-case outcomes exemplify the system perfectly. Moore interviews two healthcare whistle-blowers, both now plagued with guilt, who explain what should be obvious: The point of the system is to treat as few people as possible as cheaply as possible, and those who get ahead in the healthcare industry are those who find ever more devious ways to deny coverage. (For example, you can now be denied for certain preexisting conditions you didn’t know about, on the premise that you should have known about them.)
OK, let’s get to the headlines: Yes, in the film Moore travels with a group of ill and injured 9/11 rescue workers (along with several other of his film’s protagonists) to Cuba, where they receive free and apparently excellent medical treatment. It’s unquestionably another button-pushing Michael Moore stunt, designed to provoke controversy. It’s cheap but funny, dubious as evidence but affecting anyway. Moore does not even seem aware of the possibility that the Cubans were shrewd enough to see the propaganda value in this exercise, and put on a dog-and-pony show for his and our benefit. (For that matter, we don’t know how much of the visit was planned in advance with Cuban authorities.) All that aside, within the context of the film and the argument Moore is building, Cuba makes as much sense as anywhere else.