On March 10th — just before things in Toronto began to shut down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic — I introduced and led a post-screening discussion of Michael Moore’s hit 2007 documentary Sicko at Ryerson University as part of the Centre for Free Expression’s 2019-2020 Film Series. I’m publishing my introduction below for anyone who might be interested. As I say in my remarks, the screening was eerily well-timed considering what was happening with the Democratic Party presidential primaries at that moment. Quite a few conversations at the event also revolved around the preparedness of our global health systems in the face of Coronavirus. In short, the timing of the event made it plainly obvious that Sicko — a funny and impassioned plea for free, universal healthcare in America — has lost none of its urgency or relevancy in the thirteen years since its release. Indeed, as epidemiologist Danya M. Qato wrote just last week for Jacobin: “COVID-19 teaches us why Medicare for All should be the floor of our demands not the ceiling. To truly address this pandemic, and any other smaller and bigger crises that might follow, we need to create and deploy a public health infrastructure that listens to and is accountable to the people who have long been foreclosed from care.”
I was delighted when the IMA’s Dr. Blake Fitzpatrick invited me to introduce tonight’s film, Sicko — Michael Moore’s 2007 take on the woefully inadequate U.S. healthcare system. But then I started to think about the task before me: introducing a Michael Moore film…for a series on “Truth, Evidence, and Disinformation”…under the auspices of the Centre for Free Expression. What have I gotten myself into?
From the very beginning of his career, Moore has been a controversial figure. His first film, 1989’s muckraking Roger & Me, documents the devastation his hometown of Flint, MI, faced after General Motors closed several large plants there. As impactful and indelible as the film is in this regard, it was really its framing device — Moore’s comic and Quixotic quest to get a meeting with then-GM chairman Roger Smith — that captured the movie-going public’s imagination. Not only did this shtick come to define Moore’s style, it has certainly had ripple effects on popular documentary cinema. (We could spend the better part of this evening listing the various folks and projects that have clearly been influenced by him, both for better and worse.)
You probably know the rest: after experiments in television and narrative filmmaking, Moore went on to win an Oscar for 2002’s Bowling for Columbine, his look at gun violence in America. After being booed off the awards stage for denouncing the U.S. invasion of Iraq, he then turned his attention to the “War on Terror.” The resulting film, 2004’s Fahrenheit 9/11, failed in its goal to prevent George W. Bush’s re-election, but did become the highest grossing documentary film of all time — a distinction that it retains to this day (with nothing having come even remotely close to taking its place). The success also made Moore public enemy number one in the eyes of the American right: at the Republican National Committee that same year, the late John McCain called him “a disingenuous filmmaker” to thunderous applause.
If that zinger had more staying power than most, it might be because it built on preexisting concerns about Moore and his work. At the time of Roger & Me‘s release, for example, noted critics Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert sparred over the filmmaker’s ethics, in particular his loose approach to chronology. Moore’s unapologetically leftist politics have also marked him as a figure of suspicion among not just the right wing, but also those who uncritically hold fast to the belief that documentaries should (or even can) be “objective” or “neutral.” As ticket sales for his films have sharply declined, it’s become downright fashionable in both academic and critical circles to pooh-pooh the man and his work. “He’s an artless polemicist,” the line goes. “A self-righteous populist. A bigmouth. A blowhard. A gadfly. An antic-prone wise-ass.” Two Toronto writers, Will Sloan and Luke Savage, even host a podcast called Michael & Us, which began as a concerted effort to skewer each and every one of Moore’s projects from the left.
At the same time, there have been attempts by some to rehabilitate Moore, or at least ensure that he and his work are getting a fair hearing. For example, no less than Thom Andersen, director of the classic 2003 essay-film Los Angeles Plays Itself and a professor at the California Institute of the Arts, has argued that Moore’s 2009 film Capitalism: A Love Story is “the most remarkable documentary” of the first decade of this century. (I’d agree that it’s definitely one of them.) And in a recent interview with Film Comment, the School of Image Arts’s very own Dr. Brett Story called Roger & Me “a masterpiece” and sang its praises. In addition, Moore’s last film, the anti-Trump screed Fahrenheit 11/9, received some of his most glowing reviews in quite some time, which may inspire further re-examinations of his oeuvre.
On that note, the CFE could not possibly have chosen a more appropriate moment to offer a look back at Sicko. In an interview just last night with MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell, Former Vice President Joe Biden, one of the two remaining candidates in the Democratic Presidential Primary, said that, if elected, he would veto any Medicare for All legislation that came across his desk. And tonight’s primary in Michigan will very much determine the continued viability the other candidate, Senator Bernie Sanders — whose enormous popularity (and Michael Moore endorsement) have a tremendous lot to do with his unwavering support of Medicare for All.
From our vantage point in 2020, Sicko looks very prophetic indeed. Then as now, it’s hard to disagree with Moore when he says of healthcare in the U.S.: “We’ll never fix anything until we get that one basic thing right. And powerful forces hope that we never do. And that we remain the only country in the western world without free, universal health care.” If that sounds a little too partisan for your taste, Moore’s Canadian relatives are brought in to reassure us: “We’re not criticizing your country, we’re just giving you the facts.”
That said, I definitely think there are things to critique about Sicko. For instance, one thing that has always irked me about it is the comparison that Moore draws between the medical treatment of 9/11 rescue workers and prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba. Invoking a term from the Bush Administration, he jokingly refers to the detainees as “evildoers.” But, of course, many of these prisoners are being held at Guantanamo Bay precisely because the U.S. does not have sufficient evidence to charge them with any crime. As funny and effective as this bit is in some ways, it also reifies a dichotomy that is very problematic from both a civil libertarian and an anti-war perspective.
And, of course, at the time of Sicko‘s release, Moore was criticized from many corners for his (arguably) idealized depictions of health care systems outside the United States. I imagine we’ll talk a bit about this in the discussion afterwards; for my part, though, I do think the filmmaker has handled himself extremely well in the face of these attacks. In a tense exchange with a Canadian reporter at the Cannes Film Festival, for example, Moore was berated for not saying more about hospital wait times in Canada. After listening calmly to the reporter, Moore asked, “…Would you be willing to trade your Canadian health insurance card for our [U.S.] health insurance…?” The reporter’s reply? “No.”
Please enjoy the film. I look forward to talking with you all afterwards.