Film Review: Sicko

Sicko is a film about the state of the American health care system, it is high art and easily the best film I’ve seen this year.

Sicko marks Michael Moore’s fifth feature since his start in film at the late age of 35. In his relatively short career Moore has taken the documentary genre from art house second billing to mainstream wide release, grossing well over half a billion dollars in the process. Moore twice holds the record for highest-grossing-mainstream-release documentary and he has become one of the most bankable directors in Hollywood. An Oscar and over 30 film festival wins (including Cannes) has complemented his fiscal success.

Despite his lauds he is the most reviled and controversial filmmaker in the history of film. Single scenes of his films command hours of rebuttal and invective from usually articulate right wing pundits. His use of stunts and his binary approach to problems may not be textbook journalism but it is great entertainment. Although bloggers and born-again documentary puritans have endless issues with bias and the presentation of facts in Moore’s films, most educated viewers of documentary know that his films adhere to a greater veracity truth than documentary’s revered pantheon of Vertov, Riefenstahl, Flaherty, Maysles, and Morris. What so many people fail to understand is that documentary has never been about unbiased reporting, it is about visual essaying and manipulation is endemic to the form.

Canada is shown as a utopic paradise of moderate socialism and a bastion of commonsense.

Sicko begins strongly with some bizarre and grotesque stories of the obvious failings of the American health care system including some dubious self-surgical care and a man recalling having to choose what fingers he could afford to keep. Quickly the film gathers rhetorical steam and begins offsetting the tragic with the comical. It is an impressive juggling act and has the interesting effect upon the viewer of creating an emotional rollercoaster ride of riveting stories that arrives at a cathartic climax.

Perfectly paced with impressive editing and a minimum of digressions, Moore shows his evolution as a filmmaker and authority of the material with perfectly timed beats, an ominous feeling of angst, small visual pay-offs, and layered humour. One scene utilizes moving graphic labels like NASCAR races. With the sly special effect, Moore revolutionizes bill signing footage into a damning indictment against dozens of congressmen with nary a comment. Every great film has a villain and Moore sharpens his rhetorical axe and goes after everyone from disgraced President Nixon to Democratic front runner Hilary Clinton in laying blame for America’s predicament.

As with Bowling for Columbine, Canada is shown as a utopic paradise of moderate socialism and a bastion of commonsense. Canadian audiences will enjoy the fawning by Moore and perhaps engage in a teensy bit of schadenfreude. France, Britain, and Cuba’s health systems are also contrasted with the private American system to tremendous effect and give the film a great source of locales and characters. The score is subtle and effective and Moore gives the narration, often subtly employing sotto voce so as create an air of intimacy with the people and their tragedies.

Michael Moore, America’s most famous dissident, is rarely critiqued on his actual films. Critics often rush to ideological ground and defend or attack him for his views with little consideration as to his medium. That is a shame. I submit that with Sicko Moore has truly become America’s Charles Dickens, making complicated issues pertinent and entertaining through rich storytelling. Like Dickens, he is adroit at infusing melodrama with memorable characters, the villainous, the ridiculous, and the pitiful. Moreover, we ought to remember Dickens is seen today as a novelist rather than the social campaigner and controversial figure he was better known as in his day. In closing, Michael, I must ask you, please sir, may I have some more?

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