On Sicko

by Michael Lerman
May 25, 2007 3:06 AM
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Those of you who know me well know that I have very conflicted feelings on Michael Moore. Though I often fall on the same side as him politically, I think his manipulative shock tactics, employed to combat the other side, often are gigantic contradictions. For example, I believe Bowling for Columbine is a piece of media manipulation designed to criticize media manipulations. Also, I do believe he shifts the facts and using editing tricks to make us believe some things that are simply not true. (See confrontation scene at the end of Bowling for Columbine and look carefully for the jump cut in the middle of the whip pan between Heston and Moore. Also, where is Heston's reflection behind Moore as he's walking away? Moore is showing the photograph to no one.)

My anger about is often probably greater than it should be, given how dire some of the topics Moore discusses and attempts to change are. So flash forward to this week and my thoughts on his new film at Cannes, Sicko, about the atrocities of privatized healthcare in the United States.

Let's start with the basics: It is, as many have already stated, his most journalistic film. It lacks, as Robert Koehler calls it, the "gotcha" aspect that many of his other films do not. This is ironic because the main complaint I have always had about this style of filmmaking is that he uses it on complex issues with many gray areas like gun control. It wasn't so bad when he was dealing with simple, black and white topics like outsourcing (Roger & Me) and, though the privatization of health care of health care is a more complex issue than the monetary greed behind using foreign labor for cheaper results, it runs a close second. It basically boils down to prioritization of the federal budget and, in the end, simply operates on the same level of greed. However, who is he going to ambush on camera for this? Bush? The head of one American insurance company? The scope of the film is too large to pick simply one of these people and is not framed around a figurehead like Charleton Heston.

Either way, it was nice to see him work on a more intelligent level, without all the brute force and clever rouses. It just goes to show you that, despite how terribly constructed and executed all these pieces of criticism have been (from cheap, asinine internet attacks to misguided, non-analytically driven documentaries), they have had their voice recognized and, in his own quiet little way, done carefully as to not damage his bloated ego, Moore is responding.

Unfortunately, this has dire effects on the way the film plays. Sicko runs much slower than Moore's previous films, using annoyingly condescending voiceovers instead of witty condescending on-camera quips as to have his opinion heard while steering clear of accusations of manipulated interviews and finding repetition as a totally unsuitable replacement to fill the dead air where the smoke & mirrors used to be. Sequences go on forever, playing six times longer than the information provided. I would guess, if edited down to essentials, the film would run about forty minutes. Perhaps Moore actually never knew how to make a documentary to begin with, proving himself more of an entertainer than a filmmaker.

Nonetheless, he does make a valiant effort and his integrity does not go unnoticed. In fact, I can't wait to see what he does next, hoping that gradually he will actually learn what he's doing.

That being said, the film is not without its manipulative flaws, even though they are few and far between. I clocked it and when discussing public health care in other countries, it takes him an entire forty minutes to stop simply repeating the word "Free" and start discussing where the money is coming from, namely taxes. Even when he does switch to that topic, he does actually delve into it, quickly shifting the conversation to annual income and away from any useful side by side comparison.

Also, he builds a climax by claiming that the prisoners in Guantanamo get better medical treatment than an average American citizen. Yeah, okay, you could make a good point that the government obnoxiously asserts this in a public statement - one that could be offensive to all citizens struggling to get good medical coverage. But does he really expecting us to believe that these people are actually receiving some sort supreme physical comfort? Come on. Out of this, he falls back on the silly, contrived performance art stylings of his TV show The Awful Truth. Though clearly possibly staged (watch the editing carefully, it could go either way, but this isn't innocent until proven guilty), this did not bother me so much. It’s funny and harmless, really attacking no one except a tragic reality and leading the film to a very touching climax that reminds you that, through all his misgivings, Moore's heart has always been in the right place, fighting for a good cause. Maybe now, behaving more maturely and giving the other side less fuel for a counterattack, he won't unintentionally do more harm than good.

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