By Claudia Puig, USA TODAY
"What's wrong with us?" Michael Moore asks in his latest documentary, the highly entertaining and informative Sicko.
The question pertains to how a prosperous country like the USA can do what he (and others) consider a shoddy job in the arena of health care. (According to the film, the USA ranks 37th in the world.) The film presents several moving individual sagas of Americans who suffered medical calamities, from brain tumors to liver cancer to severed fingers, and shines a light on their care, or lack thereof, based on the actions of private health-insurance companies.
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Those interviewed speak tearfully of loved ones who died. Doctors at an out-of-plan hospital refuse to treat an 18-month-old with a high fever, and she goes into cardiac arrest and dies. A middle-aged man with cancer cannot persuade his insurance company to approve a lifesaving bone-marrow transplant, and he falls into a coma and dies. World Trade Center rescue workers are denied treatment for injuries they sustained in the line of their heroic work.
Moore also interviews doctors and employees at HMOs, including an insurance "hit man" whose job it was to come up with reasons why a procedure or operation should be denied.
Having been criticized in the past for being too dominant a presence in his films, Moore hangs back this time, asking pointed questions but letting others do most of the talking.
This is easily his most ambitious project; the film is all over the place, figuratively and literally. Moore goes along with physicians on house calls in France and to medical offices in Canada, doctors' homes in England and hospitals in Cuba. The bottom line, according to Moore, is that there is no bottom line: Hospital stays, government babysitters and doctor's visits are free for citizens of those countries.
Though the focus occasionally strays, the film emerges as a fascinating exploration and powerful indictment of a pressing national problem. This is Moore's biggest, best and most impassioned work. And while he probes a vitally serious subject and makes a case for widespread reform, he does so with lighthearted flourishes — large doses of humor, clever use of film footage and a catchy soundtrack. These assets, along with well-chosen interview subjects, make Sicko a film that will arouse surprise, outrage, sadness and heated discussion.
This being a Michael Moore documentary, fingers are pointed at politicians, from Richard Nixon to Hillary Clinton to George W. Bush, as well as at corporate CEOs. But the global perspective and sense that the system is mostly at fault keep the material from becoming too politically charged. Quality medical care is not intrinsically an ideological concept. Unlike Fahrenheit 9/11 or Bowling for Columbine, this is a film that those of various political affiliations will find compelling.