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Published: Friday, 6/29/2007

Movie review: Sicko ****

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

"You're not slipping through the cracks. Somebody made that crack. And you got swept in it."

- Former HMO worker

What a tenuous life.

I wrote that in my notebook as I sat through Sicko, Michael Moore's first documentary since the bombshell of Fahrenheit 9/11 left polemic craters across red and blue America. It opens today in Toledo and my guess is, by this time next week, those buses of elderly people that head to Windsor for cheap prescription drugs will be rerouted to the nearest multiplex - torches and pitchforks optional. The film contends our system of privatized health care is criminal; its illustration of this, through anecdote and Congressional footage and testimony from employees within the system, will infuriate you. And so I wrote down "Ugh." Then I heard someone in the back of the theater groan. So I scribbled "Gasp," then I heard someone else, rows ahead, stage whisper a curse word to no one in particular. The picture does this. It lands blows.

Later that night, I dreamed I lost a foot, then my car, then my Xbox 360, then all of my savings.

In that order.

And I have health insurance.

Which is better than Rick.

Rick, who tells his story early in the movie - one of a zillion engrossing horror stories collected here - was a woodworker who lost a fight with a circular saw. In other words, two fingers flew off. He had no insurance. At the hospital, they gave him an option: Reattaching the ring finger will cost $12,000. The middle finger will cost $60,000. Rick picked the ring finger (he is a married man) - but you know which finger Moore would pick.

By the way, I tell you this as a certified Michael Moore agnostic. I'm not much of a fan, not much of a hater; but I do know it's perfectly fine to question his tactics, distrust his filmmaking decisions, maybe even hold a visceral dislike for the guy himself, and still agree with Sicko, and even admire its blunt and persuasive storytelling. Indeed, if nothing else makes sense here, just the emotional resonance of Sicko - Moore's least gimmicky, most focused picture to date - renders it the director's most easily relatable documentary, and certainly his least controversial. Disagree with his methods, question his solutions, roll your eyes at his habitual overreaching - and if you don't, you're not paying too much attention - but his primary argument is irrefutable:

Our health care system does not reflect who we believe ourselves to be as Americans. We live in the richest country on Earth. We think of ourselves as kind and neighborly, and so it is immoral and shameful that we are nearly the only industrialized nation that doesn't provide medical care for its poorest citizens, that charges women to have a baby - though you hardly have to be poor to be quickly ruined by a system in which it is not in the best financial interest of care providers or insurance companies to give medical assistance.

In other words:

Our health care system is a for-profit rat's nest, Moore says, that exists not to make us better but to make more and more money.

And who contests that?

What sane person?

Regardless of your political beliefs, how you voted in the last election, or whether or not the film leads to a weekend of sleepless nights - who hasn't been bewildered by the medical bureaucracy? Asked to go to a different hospital? Or denied payment? And where are the politicians who rush to defend this system? They don't exist. Indeed, brilliantly, Moore is daring anyone to defend it. Then smartly, he establishes right away - after quick visits to those uninsured souls who stitch their own knees and choose a finger to re-attach - that his focus is on the insured who have fallen through cracks.

No wonder that if these stories share anything it's bafflement: How did this happen? Even with coverage, end up with the wrong combination of maladies, you can be destroyed.

Rather than give away too many of the stories he's collected, which range from ghoulish to heartbreaking - from 79-year old janitors who work simply to pay off medical bills to the mothers of dead children refused care by a hospital because it wasn't "under their plan" - let me describe two, because, side by side, they're the Michael Moore experience in miniature:

In the first, a woman has an absurd bout with her insurance provider. She is in a car accident ,knocked unconscious, and taken by ambulance to the hospital. A month later, she learns her health-care company would not cover the ambulance ride because it was not pre-approved. (The woman apologizes for not possessing the gift of foresight.)

In the second, at the end of Sicko - and if you follow the news, I'm giving nothing away - Moore sets sail for Cuba. If the first half of the film (the half in which the filmmaker hardly appears) is occupied by these testimonies, the second half becomes a travelogue, a survey of socialized health-care systems around the globe, ending with an act of political theater that is as questionable as it is effective. Moore loads up a boat with 9/11 volunteers who are sick and find no help coming from the federal government. But the filmmaker hears at the prison at Guantanamo the medical care is top-notch. Despite his bullhorn and everything, they are turned away at the military base, but, of course (because Moore knows what he's doing, despite the mock-astonishment), the rescue workers receive free medical care in Havana. Oh yeah, it is ridiculous.

He goes to England, France, Canada - and he's shocked that medicine in these countries is free, treatment is free, everything is taken care of, and the doctors are still rich. He's slack-jawed,actually; it's hard to deny the dichotomy and funny, though soon you want to raise a hand:

Nowhere is there shoddy care in socialized medicine? In Cuba, for instance, sure they have good health care, but how are those civil liberties doing? And how old is that equipment? Needless to say, Michael Moore carries behind him a big BUT. As in, his films are entertaining, BUT the showman is a consummate manipulator. As in, he's a blowhard, BUT he's necessary. As in, he's a sympathetic ear, BUT always, somehow, the center of attention. As in, he has no need for balance or nuance, BUT isn't he more of an essayist anyway?

He's all of that - including simplistic, which may be his populist strength and his self-defeating weakness. (Come on: Richard Nixon is to blame for all of this? Really?) BUT it's that righteous anger he calls up that ultimately transcends the topic of health care and makes Sicko hum. He may paint foreign medical care in utopian colors, but his larger point is that within those medical systems, a fundamental decency is assumed that says everyone is taken care of, and that isn't true over here - how exactly did that happen?

Sicko wants to ignite this conversation, which is a good thing, because at the moment, we argue more about Paris Hilton, and even Michael Moore, whose celebrity, we see here, has meant his ambush-camera days are gone. And if I live in a country where we only get to talk about serious things now when a new movie brings it up, I'm moving to Slovenia. They have the 39th worst heath-care system in the world - but we have the 40th.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com

or 419-724-6117.



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