‘Even a stopped clock’


Having been amongst those who found Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911 a film which encapsulated so much that was wrong about so much reaction to the atrocities in New York and Washington it is a rather strange and somewhat disorientating experience to find ones self nodding in agreement with his latest film.

Sicko is a withering indictment of the US’s health care system, if indeed the for-profit medical operations that exist in this country can be referred to as such. Moore asked for ‘health care horror stories’ on his website and received thousands of emailed examples of people who thought they were covered by their costly health insurance only to discover that when they reached their moment of need, that the system failed to deliver and they were left to pay out of their own pockets – with serious knock-on effects in terms of debt – or go without the necessary treatment and pay the price with their health and sometimes their lives.

The stories of heart-attack victims, cancer sufferers and 9-11 rescuers with breathing disorders who were all given the finger by greedy insurance firms determined to increase their profits, are moving testaments to a system which is unbecoming of a modern western society. Moore sharply illustrates how these firms, through a massive network of lobbyists and campaign donors, have bought influence in Washington and argues convincingly that the political elite are complicit in the scandalous lack of health care in the US.

While this British left-wing viewer naturally found himself in total agreement with Moore’s points, I couldn’t help suspect that I was being a little manipulated by the film maker’s techniques. On-camera tears add impact but also lead one to wonder how the moment of breakdown was reached. One scene shows a previously affluent couple, bankrupted by three heart attacks and cancer, forced to move in with their daughter’s family. Moore’s crew are on the scene on the day of the move in and show us a bedroom with no bed, in fact a storage room, which the daughter has offered to her parents. The viewer knows this a moment where we are expected, rightly, to be in sympathy with the family but it is hard not to wonder why the daughter is offering to her parents (and the cameras) a study room with no bed and no cleared space for the two elderly arrivals — the strong suspicion is that the room had not been prepared in order to enhance the scene of humiliation for the parents.

But this kind of criticism perhaps misses the point by assuming that Moore is a journalistic documentary-maker rather than what he showed himself to be with Fahrenheit – a polemicist in the agitprop tradition. On that level, Sicko works as a piece of political propaganda against the US health market. No supporter of the NHS would argue with Moore’s main argument against putting profits before people and if it takes his questionable film-making techniques to wake up the working class of America to their plight then – all the well.

Much more debatable is the second half of the film when Moore shows that ‘another health system is possible’. He visits Canada, the UK and France to show that universal health care, funded by taxation and based on the welfare state principle of social solidarity, do in fact work far better for the majority of the population than the naked capitalism of the US system. The American audience I sat in played along with Moore’s pretence that he is ‘discovering’ that healthcare in these countries is free at the point of provision and laughs as he gets bemused looks from French and British medical staff when he asks how much certain operations cost. Of course we know that Moore must know this is the case, he is an informed and political literate leftist who is well aware of what ‘socialised medicine’ means but never mind, the propagandist makes his point well.

The real problem is that he exaggerates for effect and that somewhat undermines his argument. It is not as bad as in Fahrenheit where he portrayed Saddam’s Iraq through scenes of an abundant marketplace and children happily flying kites, but no British NHS user of any political persuasion would pretend that our system is perfect and French voters have just shown that they are ready for some ‘tough medicine’ to deal with the problems of their public sector. Moore insults the intelligence of his audience by his unwillingness to present them with a more accurate and complex picture of European health systems. Instead of opening a discussion of how the US might improve health provision he reduces the debate to the level of – you’d be better off moving to Canada or France.

In keeping with that theme, Moore heads off to Cuba with a couple of boatloads of people ripped off by American insurance firms. He stops in front of the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay to ask if the Americans can be treated there. We are shown footage of hearings where US military officials proudly describe the top class health service provided to Gitmo inmates and Moore yells, literally for once, through a megaphone that “We just want the same care that Al-Quada are getting”. The audience of largely liberal Americans I watched the film with laughed out loud at this segment but it raised two questions in my head. Is Moore now saying that the prisoners at Gitmo are treated humanely? And does Moore accept that the prisoners at Guantanamo are ‘Al Quada’? If he does then he is now out of step with the mainstream anti-war opinion which was happy to laugh at his jibe. Those are side issues though – his point is correct, it is a scandal that ordinary American workers are unable to receive the level of care provided to terrorist suspects.

Where Moore really lets himself down though is when he arrives in Castro’s Cuba and asks that the sick Americans receive the care that ‘ordinary Cubans’ would get. There is no way of knowing what kind of arrangements Moore made in order to get permission for the treatment (and filming of the treatment) of his Americans in Havana but I was left highly sceptical about whether Castro’s regime had really offered up ‘ordinary’ health care for one of the world’s most popular film-makers to show to a global audience. The set-up ‘meeting’ between US firefighters and Cuban firefighters had the smell of regime manipulation all over it and Moore takes the words of Cuban officials at face value, his ability to question and his cynicism suddenly depart him in a ‘socialist’ setting.

Moore leaves the argument with a very weak point for anyone in US politics seeking change – ‘its better in France or Cuba’ is hardly the way to convince mainstream America that there is an alternative to rip-off profiteering and ignoring the very obvious questions about the reality of healthcare in Cuba undermines his credibility. Moore’s mocking of the US right’s argument that universal healthcare is a socialistic system is fun but ultimately a cop-out because the NHS and its European sister systems are indeed products of social-democratic welfare systems. Why is Moore afraid to make the case for a social-democratic policy? Why pretend it is just a question of being more civilised?

On a similar theme, why does Moore never show the viewers the healthcare provided to those who have plenty of money to spend in the US – the rich? It would surely have enhanced his argument if he showed the five star treatment provided to millionaires in the same country that dumps sick old women out of taxis and on to the pavement.

These criticisms aside, Sicko should provoke a much-needed serious debate about these issues in the US. Moore may not be a honest documentary-maker but he is a talented provocateur and his agitprop, for all its faults, should certainly stir things up. Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day.