Ben Jackson says there aren’t any Band-Aid solutions in Michael Moore’s new documentary on the American private health care system.

When a Fox News review calls the latest Michael Moore film “brilliant and uplifting,” you can bet it’s not what anyone was expecting.  Sicko is Moore’s take on the United States’ private health care system, and the insurance industry that reigns over it.

The film revolves around stories of Americans whom the system has failed – stories by turns absurd and tragic.  A young woman describes being knocked unconscious in a freeway accident, and left by her insurance company to pay for the $400 ambulance ride because she didn’t pre-approve the claim.  Cancer patients tell how their insurer is denying them access to treatments they need, leaving them to die from their illnesses.

Some of the harshest criticism comes from former health insurance workers themselves—doctors, clerks, and desk jockeys who make their employers’ millions by denying claims in any way possible.  They portray the insurance companies as the middleman between Americans and their doctors, creating a system of incentives practically designed to keep people from getting medical care.

As one insurance guy tells it, “You’re not slipping through the cracks. Somebody made that crack and swept you toward it.”

Indeed, a recent study found that fully half of all Americans filing for personal bankruptcy cite medical causes. And of these over 75 per cent actually had health insurance.

In Sicko, perhaps even more than Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore adopts a self-consciously American perspective.  In a choreographed search for alternatives, Moore travels to Canada, Britain and France where he slyly plays the ignorant-Yank-abroad, allowing his amused subjects to show off how the rest of the industrialized world does health care.

He sips wine with a group of American expats living in Paris, letting them rave about life in welfare-state France, and the standard of living it allows – luxurious compared to their families at home.

Moore finds a group of ailing 9/11 rescue workers who can’t afford medical care to address the illnesses brought on by their work at ground zero.  In Sicko’s most talked-about stunt, Moore takes them by boat to seek treatment at the U.S. Naval Base and prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where—it would seem—The Enemy are receiving what is denied to his most worthy countrymen.

It’s a transparent attempt to turn the current War on Terror rhetoric to Moore’s momentary advantage.  Unfortunately, it rather smacks of the far-Right end of the populism that Moore is constantly trying to win back for the Left. (The xenophobic overtones might go some way in explaining the Fox review.)

But what is so surprising about Sicko is that, in spite of its zeal to reach the United States’ mainstream, it remains a surprisingly radical film.  As a New York Times review noted, Moore has laid out his socialist values more openly than ever before.  Rather than obediently limiting himself to a single issue, Moore uses the U.S. health care disaster as a platform to dream about a different future for the country.

As Moore has a French doctor explain, “the principle is solidarity. People who are better off pay for those who are worse off.  You pay according to your means and you receive according to your needs.” Rather than trying to cover up the ‘socialized’ part of ‘socialized
medicine’, Moore flaunts it.

He identifies certain threads in his country’s sense of self—the small-town help-your-neighbour kind of mutuality, the sense of togetherness some people felt in the moments just after 9/11—and tries to stitch together an all-American, Mom and apple-pie sort of socialist ethic.  As hokey and fantastical as this attempt may be, it nevertheless shows a kind of ambition that hasn’t stirred in the progressive end of America’s public politics for quite some time.

If Michael Moore can revive that—in any measure—it will surely be a medical miracle.

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