Tom Jennings’ review of Michael Moore’s new documentary tragi-comedy on the American health (dis)service
Body Politics by Tom Jennings
The most effective and affecting sequences in this documentary about the US healthcare (dis-)service – where even middle-class people bankrupt themselves paying for treatment – show ordinary Americans recounting abject experiences at the hands of callous insurance companies and profiteering medical institutions. Michael Moore wisely holds ego in abeyance whereupon his subjects’ intelligence and resilience in the face of personal tragedy make his arguments for socialised medicine for him. As in previous films like Roger & Me, Bowling For Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11, this grass-roots approach to delineating his themes pays dividends because the subsequent commonsense basis for political debate undercuts the high-minded pomposity and venal dishonesty of the Great and Good bolstering the greed of their elite constituencies in the name of freedom.
Having established sympathy for the victims of such a corrupt and malicious system without rendering them passive, Moore wastes no time detailing, with great satirical flourish, the deliberate design and assiduous maintenance of this appalling state of affairs by successive generations of Republicans and Democrats from Nixon to Bush. The archival detective work again produces gems, such as Tricky Dicky in the 1971 White House Tapes rubberstamping the insurance sector’s rip-off masterminded by John Erlichman. The clincher? “All the incentives run the right way: the less care they give ... the more money they make”. Then there’s Reagan telling his public that a proper national service was not only against their interests, but ‘anti-American’ to boot. Most tellingly, the roster of corporate lickspittles includes both Clintons – Bill’s healthcare reform ticket abandoned upon becoming president, and Hilary’s commitment to universal provision doubtful given her lobby funding by Big Pharma.
Of course, the populist demagogue persona inevitably surfaces at some point, and in Sicko it arrives in spades. Freed from demands of electoral name-calling, we instead get sickening paeans to Castro’s Cuba and Tony Benn proclaiming that killing the NHS would prompt revolution here, alongside similarly ridiculously idealised descriptions of the Canadian and French systems – with attention to neither the fatal inadequacies of their massive hierarchical bureaucracies nor the present insidious drip of privatisation by the back door. The paradox once again is that success as a media brand requires sensational self-aggrandisement, with corresponding cynical levels of manipulation both of the audience and the material to guarantee access to the big screen. The result – here fetishising big government – is as frustrating as ever: at least airing so many dimensions of the problem, but obstinately oblivious to the obvious necessity of real, not token, people power if it’s ever to be solved.
Film review published in Freedom, Vol. 69, No. 1, January 2008.
For other reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see: