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Movie Review:  Michael Moore’s “SiCKO”

Posted on Jun 29, 2007

Michael Moore (left) turns his lens on the U.S. healthcare industry in his latest movie, “SiCKO.”

“SiCKO,” Michael Moore’s latest film, will probably make you laugh.  It may make you cry.  You should leave the theater outraged.  It is a powerful and often humorous indictment of our health insurance industry, riddled with corruption and pitiless abuse of the sick by rapacious, profit-mad corporations.  But it is propaganda.  In “SiCKO,” as in all his films, Moore violates the contract between reporter and audience: to tell the truth.  His inaccuracies and lack of nuance give his detractors a glaring target to strike, making it easy for them to dismiss his message.

Michael Moore is an entertainer.  He reduces complex issues to a vaudeville act with transparent villains and heroes.  His goal is to amuse.  Facts are malleable.  He employs the techniques of advertising and propaganda, the same techniques that have corrupted our news and political campaigns.  Truth and fiction blur at both ends of the political spectrum.  You can believe what you want and discard what you don’t.  This illusion of truth and knowledge is far more dangerous than ignorance.  And although I happen to sympathize with Moore’s concerns, his methods only provoke the rupture of American society into two slogan-chanting camps.

In the film, Moore takes three small boats of sick Americans, including 9/11 volunteer rescue workers, to Cuba.  They receive, at no cost, the medical treatment they have been denied at home.  It’s a triumph of the socialized state.

“I asked [the Cuban doctors] to give us the same, exact care they give their fellow Cuban citizens.  No more, no less.  And that’s what they did,” Moore says. 

The sick Americans, in a montage underscored by swelling cellos and a pensive piano, receive MRIs, dental exams, lung assessments and ultrasounds.  All Cubans, the film implies, receive this kind of care.  This is not true.


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“The treatment Moore and the rescue workers receive in the film was done specifically for them, because they [the Cubans] knew it would make great propaganda,” Dr. Julio Cesar Alfonso, a Miami doctor who practiced medicine in Cuba for four years, said in a June 22 interview with The Miami Herald.

“The medical centers in Cuba that treat tourists and government officials and VIPs are very different than the ones that treat the general population,” Alfonso said.  “If you’re a Cuban citizen and need a prescription drug, most doctors either tell you to ask your relatives in the U.S. to ship it to you or recommend alternative herbal remedies.  That’s the degree of scarcity on the island.”

Life is not a Hollywood movie.  A Cuban watching “SiCKO” would recognize this segment for what it is: agitprop.

The United States has sunk to No. 37 on the World Health Organization’s ranking of health systems.  Moore’s camera pans down the list to zero in on the shameful No. 37.  It slides too quickly for most viewers to catch that Canada is No. 30, and the frame stops just short of No. 39: Cuba.

There is, despite this distortion and omission of facts, much in “SiCKO” that is worthwhile. The film is strongest when Moore allows ordinary Americans to tell their heart-rending stories about the abuse they suffered in our profit-driven insurance industry.

Julie Pierce, a middle-aged woman seated alone in her Kansas City living room, struggles to contain her emotions as she talks about her husband, who had kidney cancer.  His brother was a perfect match for a bone marrow transplant.  These transplants can halt and sometimes eradicate the disease.  An insurance company, however, denied the transplant, claiming it was experimental.  Her husband died. 

“He was my best friend, he was my soulmate, he was my son’s father. ... They took away everything that matters. ... You preach these visionary values, that we care for the sick, the dying, the poor, that we’re a healthcare that leaves no one behind.  You left him behind. ... It was as if he was nothing.  And I want them to have a conscience about it and I don’t think they do.”

Moore also interviews those within the monolith.  Linda Peeno, a former medical reviewer for Humana, says: “The very definition of a good medical director was somebody who could save the company a lot of money. ...  The doctor with the highest percentage of denial was actually going to get a bonus.  Any payment for a claim is referred to as a medical loss.  That’s the terminology the industry uses.  When ... you deny their care ... you make a decision that brings in money ... it’s a savings to the company.”
This let-them-die-for-profit ethic is contrasted against the testimony of a British doctor interviewed later in the film.

“We get paid by what we do, so the better we do for our patients, the more we get paid,” he tells Moore in a hospital corridor.  “If the most number of your patients have [desirably] low blood pressure, or if you get most of your patients to stop smoking, or you get most of your patients to have things like mental health reviews, or lower their cholesterol, then you get paid more.”

But, like the nightly news, Moore never allows us to linger too long on catastrophe.  It might depress us, and the point, of course, is to entertain.  When a Michigan woman poses as a Canadian in Windsor, Ontario, to receive medical care, Moore deadpans: “Yes, what Adrian was doing was illegal.  But we’re Americans.  We go into other countries when we need to.  It’s tricky.  But it’s allowed.”  This fragmentation reassures us, as it does on television.  Tragedy is always followed by a good joke.  This discontinuity, while it amuses and diverts, damages our sense that the world is a serious place.

Moore’s manipulative use of music—“SiCKO”  is almost entirely scored—provides the required emotional stimulation.  The music imparts the pace, the mood, the energy of the film.  Sometimes it is exciting and satirical.  Heroic brass blares as the three intrepid little boats of Moore’s sick Americans, flying large American flags, streak southward to Guantanamo Bay, “the one place on American soil that still had free universal healthcare.”  Suddenly canned elevator music and the seal of the Department of Homeland Security cut off the faux action movie.  Sometimes the cue is maudlin, as when the sobbing violins of Barber’s Adagio for Strings underscore Linda Peeno’s harrowing 1996 testimony before Congress about the abuses of managed care. 

“In the spring of 1987, as a physician, I denied a man a necessary operation that would have saved his life, and thus caused his death.  No person and no group has held me accountable for this, because in fact what I did was save a company half a million dollars. ... I had one primary duty, and that was to use my medical expertise for the financial benefit of the organization for which I worked.”

The music inevitably frames Peeno’s words as courtroom drama.  There is no soundtrack in real life.  No violins were playing when Peeno made her testimony.  The music, ostensibly used to enhance the gravity of the situation, only prevents the audience from realizing the full, unadorned weight of reality.

Moore visits Canada, Britain, France and Cuba to compare the wreckage of the American healthcare system with these countries’ fairy tale dreams, in which “Everything is free!”  He discovers that in a British hospital, money comes out of the cashier’s window rather than going in.  Seated in a candle-lit bistro at a table of Americans living in Paris, he is overwhelmed, hands over his ears, by the incomprehensible lunacy of what they tell him of France: free healthcare, free child care, free college education, five weeks’ paid vacation, an extra paid week for your honeymoon, unlimited sick days, government-issued nannies, no, no, make it stop, make it stop!!!

The other countries are painted with broad, rose-tinted strokes.  All the Canadians, British and French interviewed have nothing but praise for their national healthcare.  There are no dissenting viewpoints, no investigations into the economics that make these systems possible.

There is an interview with a doctor in Cuba, Aleida Guevara, the pediatrician daughter of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, in which she wonders why an impoverished island nation is able to provide free healthcare for its citizens while the United States cannot.  Cuba’s massive Soviet subsidies in the 1970s and ‘80s of $4 billion to $6 billion annually, which kept the nation afloat and made this system possible, go unmentioned, as does Cuba’s subsequent decline once these subsidies ended with the collapse of the USSR in 1991.

The star of Michael Moore’s films is always Michael Moore.  “SiCKO” at first seems to be the exception.  His aw-shucks-gee-whiz persona doesn’t shamble into view until halfway through the film.  The first half of “SiCKO” is stronger for his physical absence, allowing us to focus on the personal suffering caused by our dysfunctional healthcare system.

But Moore’s narcissism is given full vent at the end of “SiCKO.”  He tells us, in a voice coy with false modesty, that he sent an anonymous $12,000 check to the man who runs “the biggest anti-Michael Moore website on the Internet” to pay his ailing wife’s astronomical insurance expenses.  This allowed the man—whose insulting blog postings to Moore fill the screen—to keep the website going and “run [Moore] into the ground.”  This would have been an admirable gesture if Moore had kept it anonymous.  But if it were anonymous, it wouldn’t be admired.  And Michael Moore’s films, however important their issues, are ultimately crafted to serve Michael Moore.


In theaters June 29
Rated PG-13
Running Time: 123 minutes
Written and directed by Michael Moore; edited by Christopher Seward, Dan Sweitlik and Geoffrey Richman; produced by Moore and Meghan O’Hara; released by Lionsgate and the Weinstein Co.

Eunice Wong is an actor based in New York City.  She trained at the Juilliard School Drama Division and received the 2006 Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Lead Actress.


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By cann4ing, June 30, 2007 at 11:42 pm Link to this comment

Having just watched Sicko! I decided to re-read Ms. Wong’s piece.

The “propaganda” is not Sicko! but Ms. Wong’s hit piece.  She quotes a Miami doctor who “practiced in Cuba” for four years.  Wong doesn’t tell us how long ago this doctor practiced.  Miami is home to fanatical, right-wing anti-Castro Cubans.  Known terrorists, including Orlando Bosch and Jorge Posada Carrilles walk freely amongst them courtesy of the connections to the CIA and both Bush administrations.  We are supposed to take this exiled Cuban doctor’s statement as gospel?

After re-reading Ms. Wong’s hit piece, I had to question whether she actually saw Sicko! before she wrote it.  She quotes this exiled Cuban doctor as stating that if a Cuban wants a prescription drug they are told to get a relative in America to send it, or are provided herbal medicine.  Yet, in the film Moore first takes the 9/11 responders to a corner drug store, filled with medications on the shelves.  They provide a 9/11 responder with medications that cost her $250 each at the grand price of 5 cents each.  The exiled Cuban doctor suggests that treatment of the responders occurred at a hospital reserved for party members, yet when Moore and the responders first walk into the hospital, unaccompanied by “any” Cuban officials, the hospital waiting room is filled with what certainly looks like ordinary Cubans and Moore and the responders have to explain their presence.

Wong blasts Moore for not mentioning that Cuba’s economy had been supported by Soviet subsidies, yet Wong disingenuously neglects to mention that the U.S. has attempted to effectuate an economic embargo against Cuba for nearly forty years, and that Bush administration, over the past six years, has attempted to tighten these economic screws. [She conveniently neglects to mention that in the film, Moore refers to Cuba as a third-world country].

Contrary to Wong’s critique, which suggests that he should have simply presented dry courtroom testimony, Moore’s use of Barber’s Adagio for Strings was not maudlin but appropriate to the substance of testimony by Dr. Linda Pino as to how America’s utterly corrupt utilization review system kills and maims “real” people—something the right wing propagandadists would hope we ignore.  Tragic music is appropriate to our tragic circumstance.

Wong’s use of the word “agitprop” together with her inordinate focus on the film’s Cuban connection is a barely disguised effort to dismiss Sicko! as a piece of “Communist propaganda.”  Wong choses to ignore the powerful interview of British MP Tony Ben, the derisive laughter that occurred whenever Moore asked the Brits, the Canadians, the French or the Cubans how much they paid for their medical care.  In all those countries health care is seen as a basic human right.  Here it is a commodity.

Wong also leaves off something else.  In all four countries, Moore encounters individuals who are far less stressed than Americans; who all display a level of contentment in their lives that we lack; this includes an interview of a group of Americans living in France, one of whom states she feels guilty because she has what her parents have struggled their whole lives for and could not attain here.

Sicko! is “not” propaganda.  It is a documentary that exposes the extent to which we live under a morally bankrupt system that thrives on propaganda to keep the subjugated masses in this country fearful; incapable of challenging the corrupt core of a system that values the profits of a tiny wealthy elite over life itself.

Given Sicko’s effectiveness, I am confident that Wong’s is but the first of a salvo of a barrage of propaganda that will be launched by the insurance industry, the blowhard pundits in the corporate media and the billionaire-funded think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute.

The real question is whether Peter and Robert Scheer will aid them in that task by posting more hit pieces at Truthdig.

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By brad, June 30, 2007 at 8:22 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

truly a review only an actor could write.

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By Max Shields, June 30, 2007 at 8:14 pm Link to this comment

#82801 by Non Credo on 6/30 at 6:17 pm

Why do you keep saying we can’t “afford” a world class health care system, when it’s been acknowledged that one of the poorer nations, Cuba, has just that? We currently pay more per capita for health care than any other nation in the world and that gets a us a ranking of 37!

Certainly our priorities have been in the opposite direction of those other 36 countries. An economic system dedicated to profit and privitization of every step of the health care process including the patenting of the food we eat and the medication we take. With our talk about prevention our system leans on the after the fact (and highly expensive) cures - expensive procdures.

At key points many Americans were complicit. Still our leaders have failed to lead, corporations have inched their way into running our government.

We’ve seen, through our elected officials a dismantaling of our social safety nets starting with Ronald Reagan to the present. But it is not only health care that we’re coming up short on, and the common cause is the very system that has collapsed our communities and eliminated representative government.

But again, it needn’t continue.

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By Alida Chacon, June 30, 2007 at 7:53 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Sorry, couldn’t read the whole review.  I had to stop at the part that Moore took Americans to Cuba for healthcare. 

I was born in Cuba.  I am a U.S. Citizen and have lived here 37 years.  My family sends medicine to my uncle in Cuba, who is inflicted with Parkinson’s.  I don’t think many Cubans living on the island would know what an MRI is. 

Please!  I like Moore’s movies, but come on.  He has crossed the line much the way the grieving soldier’s mom did when she allied herself with Hugo Chavez.(Sorry her name eludes me at the moment.)

At this point how can we take Moore seriously?

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By cann4ing, June 30, 2007 at 5:09 pm Link to this comment

I’ve been waiting for someone to step forward to advance the Social Darwinist, laissez faire myth.  “Made in America” tells us we are a “meritocracy where one gets what one earns.”

The gap between laissez faire myth and reality is as stark as the growing gap between the present wealthiest one percent of America and everyone else where, by 1999, the net worth of just three individuals, Bill Gates, Paul Allen & Warren Buffet, was larger than the gross doimestic product of the world’s 41 poorest nations and their 550 million people.  In today’s upside-down America, ostensibly “public” institutions have been increasingly perverted into tools of wealth disparity, as wealth has devised one scheme after another to insure that, from the perspective of the working and middle classes, things will only get worse.  Thirty years ago, at $1.3 million, the average annual CEO compensation was 39 times that of the average worker.  Today, at $37.5 million, it is over 1000 times that of the average worker.  “America,” Bill Moyers observes, has already become perhaps the harshest and most unforgiving society among the industrial democracies…”

While the middle and working classes are being pressured to surrender what is left of the New Deal safety net, the wealthy have had no qualms about extending a hand to receive government subsidies, as occurred between 1989 and 2002 when the U.S. Government spent over $250 billion to bailout hundreds of Savings & Loans which had been mismanaged into insolvency.  A blatant example of this reverse socialism involves the billionaire New York stockbroker, whom Jim Hightower refers to as Charles “Ducky” Schwab, proud owner of 1,500 acres of Northern California rice growing wetlands—“Casa de Patos.”  Although Schwab grows the rice merely to attrack ducks so he can treat his friends to a duck hunt, that didn’t stop him from placing his “Home of the Ducks” into the federal farm program so that he can cash in on a $500,000 annual subsidy because he doesn’t market the rice.  “Sadly,” Hightower observes in “Thieves in High Places,” “it’s legal, and it’s a fine upstanding example of what George and his base like to call ‘entrepreneurship.’”

Casa de Patos is but the tip of an iceberg.  In “The Great American Job Scam” Greg LeRoy documents how, over the past fifty years, corporations have obtained massive subsidies, outright gifts of land and property and enormous tax breaks from city, county, state and regional government entities by enticing bidding wars between them through empty promises of job creation that are most often never fulfilled and which, from a national perspective, do not create jobs but merely shift them from one region to another.

And subsidies are but a small part of governmental assistance to corporate America.  Broad policies ranging from a willingness to engage in resource wars, to denial of the science behind global warming, to suppression of California’s short’lived requirment for increasing poercentages of new, zero-emissions ato sales, have all served to insure the highest profits in history flowed to an oil cartel which also received $7 billion in subsidies this past year.

Space permitting, I could add a specific account of how one George W. Bush made his millions.  The man could serve as Exhibit “A” in the case for demolishing the Social Darwinist myth that money goes to the best and the brightest.

You should change your identification to “Brainwashed in America.”

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By Sayuncl666, June 30, 2007 at 3:49 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Why do people keep missing the point of Michael Moores films? The right dismisses him in their typical underhanded smear campaigns, diverting attention from the important issues he brings up. But the liberal critics are just plain jealous.They have been inneffective in bringing about social change simply because they take themselves far too seriously. God forbid we should be able to laugh at our follies.Michael Moore is doing more to bring about positive change through humorous and emotional observations, than most progressives could achieve in their lifetimes

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