Thursday, 25 October 2007

Why is Michael Moore so darned irritating? - A review of Sicko

Like any skilled polemicist, Michael Moore makes his message easy to watch and simple to translate. Put crudely, this film tells us: the healthcare systems in civilised countries aim to take care of people. The healthcare system in America aims to make a profit. You could’ve worked that message out from the trailer, or, if you were at the gala screening at the Odeon in Leicester Square last night, you could’ve worked it out from the letter of apology sent by Mr Moore, who was supposed to be there for a Q&A, but couldn’t make it. It’s a plea for a return to socialised (or state-run) health facilities in the USA, a plea to echo the systems of Britain, France or Cuba. A reasonable plea, made in Moore’s now-recognisable brand of ram-it-down-their-throats docu-satire.

a reasonable premise
This year, 18 000 Americans will die because they can’t afford their healthcare bills, Moore tells us. We meet a man who lost the tops of two fingers in an accident; because privatised healthcare sticks a hefty price tag on all procedures, he had to choose between a $12 000 ring finger and a $32 000 middle finger (he went for the cheaper option). His counterpart in the UK, a man who chopped off several fingers in a similar accident, got them all sewn back on for free. We meet ex-physicians from some of Moore’s health insurance corporates (Cigna, Blue Shield, Humana and the like), who tell us their salary bonuses were directly linked to the number of medical cases in which treatment was denied. We meed a dozen or so other ordinary Americans who had treatment denied in the US, including volunteers from the smoking remains of 9/11. It’s all contrasted with the happy, free medical care available in the UK and France, where Moore interviews well-paid, affluent doctors and their happy, satisfied patients, including ex-Americans contemplating their good fortune to live in countries with free medical care.

the sincerest propaganda
It was somehow unsurprising that Moore sent a letter of apology to his British audience. The generous assumption would be that Moore’s family commitments back home were real, and the letter was one of genuine regret that he couldn’t make the screening. But to be cynical just for a second, the letter-in-lieu-of-appearance also came across as a masterly ploy. Firstly, the filmmaker got in the first – and last – word. Secondly, he got to pre-empt the potential criticisms that would inevitably arise in the audience, given his uncritical depiction of the NHS. And thirdly, nothing disarms a British audience like a good, self-deprecating apology.

Indeed, Moore’s mood palette consists primarily of apology, self-deprecation, and of course, contained indignation. It all comes across as disarmingly personal and sincere: Michael apologises for the havoc his country wreaks in others; Michael winces at his own desire to reclaim his national pride; Michael sighs and shakes his head in outrage at the wronged little people – those routinely denied treatment. Michael apologises for wanting to reclaim his national pride and fly his flag.
In his signature cap and oversized T-shirt, and staggeringly overweight frame, Moore makes a point of never prettying up for camera. If anything, he wants to appear Ordinary, The Little Guy, though he sure ain’t physically little, and nor is his influence something to be toyed with; one respondent to his online request for information waved the filmmaker’s name his health insurance company, only to get his denial swiftly overturned by the CEO.

Still, the discourse of sincerity carefully offsets Moore’s calculated use of good old agitprop. His favourite trick is to raid the archives for charming, grainy clippings – old news clips, snippets from Cold War anti-communist propaganda, bits and pieces of Hollywood classics – and splice them together wittily. Of course, it’s all under the guise of Irony and Satire, and the audience laps it up. We’re all far too visually literate to take in this kind of imagery in any other mode than the ironic. Or are we? Isn’t Moore just shoring up the same set of layered emotional responses that propagandists have used in every other generation, coating it in a palatable and fashionable layer of irony?

not quite documentary
Most documentary film-makers I’ve encountered will tell you that documentary-making tends to start with a question. And through the making of their film, they thrash out the complexities of the question, sometimes arriving at an answer, sometimes not. The principle of documentary is that of investigation. Moore, on the other hand, sets out with an argument, and constructs anecdotes and a ton of imagery to make you listen. It’s remarkable that his work still gets billed as documentary. Perhaps, like so many of the questionably categorised medical procedures mentioned in the film, it’s ‘experimental’. Perhaps he’s just constructed a genre of his own, and when he gets the guns out for the same repertoire of usual suspects (all our woes can be traced back to George Bush and the war in Iraq), it’s no different from the director of Rocky including the showdown fight at the end, or the director of James Bond making sure there’s a decent supply of car chases and gadget play. It’s what we’ve come to expect of the genre. Still, I have seen dozens of variations on the idea of documentary (indeed, some say that every documentary film-maker has to explore what it is they mean by documentary), and none leave me quite as irritable as Michael Moore does.

conclusion – a convincing prescription, if you can stomach the dosage
Inevitably, I find that I have the same experience during the last half-hour of any Michael Moore film: I’ve had enough. Someone let me out. It’s fun to watch, but after a while the guy is just too annoying for me. But even if you want to slap Michael Moore by the end of it, and tell him to lose the floppy cap and whingy tone, there will be few – if any – audience members that leave the cinema feeling that he has gotten it wrong. If anything, he leaves you feeling grateful to be in Britain, land of the glowing NHS, and wondering whether, if healthcare privatisation gets out of hand here, you might consider emigration to Cuba.