Is there anything so satisfying as being manipulated in the service of a righteous cause? That pleasure was amply mine last night, when I attended a screening of Sicko, Michael Moore's documentary indictment of the U.S. health care system. The film ranges from darkly funny to just dark, as ordinary Americans tell heart-rending stories of being refused necessary treatment. Rapacious HMOs executives and their minions play the villains and you want to hiss whenever they appear. The movie is an emotional workout; I laughed, I cried, and when there was footage of the President, I pointed my finger at the screen and pretended to shoot.
Sicko is an unabashed polemic. Moore wants you to walk out of the theater and agitate for universal health care. The U.S. is the only developed country in the world without it, the film repeatedly points out. To underline the failings of our system, Sicko brings us to Canada, England and France, where health care is free and guaranteed. As usual, Moore takes the scenic route, lingering especially in France to digress on the superior quality of life. In France, if you can believe it, the government provides free part-time nannies to new mothers.
Back home, Moore visits a number of 9/11 responders who have been denied care for illnesses they contracted in the course their rescue work. Sicko contrasts this shameful treatment with the superior medical care afforded the prisoners at Guantanamo. In an inspired piece of political theater, Captain Moore loads some of the ailing 9/11 workers onto boats in Miami, with the ostensible plan of sailing to Guantanamo Bay to seek treatment for them. In the waters just off the base, Moore's bullhorned request is met with an ominous siren. So Moore and his sick passengers retreat to Havana, where they are introduced to the marvels of Cuban health care.
The rescue workers receive sophisticated tests that they could never afford at home. They stock up on medications that sell for hundreds of dollars at U.S. pharmacies but cost less than $10 in Cuba. And they meet sympathetic doctors who formulate detailed treatment plans for them. It's impressive, even allowing for the effect of the rolling cameras.
The finale of the trip comes when Havana firefighters, hearing that the 9/11 rescue workers are in town, request an opportunity to pay them tribute. A scene at the firehouse, where the Cubans first stand at attention and then offer hugs and vows of brotherhood, is a major tear-jerker. I know because I was crying - even as part of me was admiring the sheer humbug. It's not propaganda, I decided, if you're of the same mind.
Sicko, scheduled for release on June 29th, already has mustered an army of supporters. Nurses around the country plan to host 3,000 screenings in their communities. They are calling the release of Sicko a “historic opportunity to turn movie audiences into patient advocates and healthcare reformers.”