There's no good argument to be made for the current system of privatized health care in the United States. Upward of 40 million Americans have no health insurance, and many of those who do face stiff premiums, out-of-control drug prices, gaps in coverage for pre-existing conditions and "experimental" treatments, and messy tangles of bureaucratic red tape. It's a joke to call it a "system" at all, but the few defending the status quo have thus far been powerful enough to maintain it, thanks to hefty political contributions and scare campaigns that make socialized medicine look like a diabolical communist plot. All of which makes Sicko, the new documentary by professional rabble-rouser Michael Moore, perhaps the closest he'll ever come to broad consensus. Though Moore remains a polarizing figure—as much to leftists ambivalent about his tactics as rightists who object to him for more obvious reasons—he has a gift (yes, it's a gift) for reducing complex issues to bite-sized ideological nuggets. And the ones Sicko offers are, by and large, pretty tasty.
The usual Moore mélange of factoids, anecdotes, and stunts, Sicko states up front that it isn't really about the many uninsured Americans, it's about those suffering under the coverage they have, particularly from HMOs. Puncturing the myth that the U.S. offers the best health care in the world—it's actually 38th, just ahead of Slovenia, and virtually the only industrialized nation to not support universal care—the film opens with testimony from average, middle-class Americans who have weathered needless tragedy. It expands from there, continually returning to these heart-rending stories, but also exploring superior health-care systems in Britain, France, Canada, and, most notoriously, Cuba, where Moore carts a group of 9/11 rescue workers. (A typical exchange: Moore: "So how much are you paying for [this incredibly expensive procedure]? Patient: "Nothing." Moore: "Really?! Wow!")
The problem with Sicko—one endemic to Moore documentaries in general—is that it never confronts any challenges to its position, which can make it seem like the crudest sort of agitprop. Somebody has to pay for all this free coverage, after all, and it wouldn't necessarily weaken Moore's case to be honest about the higher tax burden, or admit that national health-care systems, even the best ones, have their own hassles and red tape. Still, few citizens in France or Britain would likely opt to rescind their universal coverage for a system more like America's, no matter their place on the political spectrum. Here's an issue that transcends politics and speaks to basic human need and collective responsibility; perhaps we need Moore's cudgel to make the case bluntly.