Susan Gerhard June 28, 2007

After targeted previews all over the country and an opening week in New York City, “SiCKO” begins its march to the people this Friday. Its story of the mismanagement of U.S. healthcare takes Michael Moore from the U.S. to Canada to Great Britain to France, and most notably, to Cuba. But for audiences of the Bay Area and even the rest of California, there’s a curiously thrilling local angle: Moore has dug from the archives the moment when Richard Nixon becomes a fan of the HMO via Kaiser Permanente. In a conversation with John Ehrlichman, Nixon offers that he’s not too keen on any of these “damn medical programs,” but Ehrlichman cools him down by making sure Nixon understands this particular program is actually being run by reputable capitalists — for a profit. The way Kaiser does it, says Ehrlichman, is that “all the incentives are [for] less medical care — because the less care they give them, the more money they make.”

Of course, the jury’s still out about whether or not this Eureka moment for Nixon really led to all the American healthcare nightmares that followed it, but in classic Michael Moore form, the moment is much less important as a rewrite of the “people’s history” than for its shock value. As always, this Moore movie is meant to rouse your inner rabble, to bring yourself to question official history, to take your case, in this case, your sickness, away from the advice nurse and into the streets. The surprise villain in this manifesto is, strangely, not the bureaucrat, not some CEO, not even an overly made-up/ trained-bland spokesmodel for some corporate entity. It’s us: a populace overworked and overworried into submission.

Michael Moore, I needn’t remind anyone, is the most popular documentary filmmaker of all time that the critics love to hate. But even the critics, this time around, are moved by his premise: That a society that treats its most vulnerable citizens, its sick, with this much disdain, has to be a pretty sick society itself. I don’t need to describe the film — you’ll see it soon enough — scenes of human loss that call out for convulsive crying, interspersed with over-the-top montage a la Moore, the most maudlin music imaginable, and a few very choice laughs. Moore stages his comedy well: Scene after scene in a British hospital with the director brashly searching for paying hospital customers lands him at a sign in a downstairs corridor that says “Cashier,” where, surely, someone owes something. But what does the man behind the window do all day? He gives out money to patients so they can get a free ride home.

In the so-bizarre-it-has-to-be-a-Moore-setpiece: Even the unfairly imprisoned missing persons at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, receive better health care than the most upper of middleclass Americans hanging on to their plastic HMO cards.

Where Roger Smith, Charlton Heston, and George Bush lined up for target practice, American citizens have to stand in the bulls eye for this one. Why — Moore asks — aren’t we demanding our basic human rights, to be cared for, and to care for others, the way citizens of other civilized countries do? It’s a bold move, and one that draws us back to the rest of the director’s oeuvre. I would argue that all Moore’s essays — in spite of the populist trappings we love to hate on (their spoofy soundtracks and glorious cheap shot jokes) — are elegant polemics that lead us, as a culture, somewhere new. Take a look: Teens shoot up their teachers and students in a high school, but Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine” doesn’t saddle us with the usual suspects — their music and videogames and absent parents — but looks to the military industrial complex, alive and well in that Colorado town. Airplanes fly through the Twin Towers, but Moore doesn’t bog down in whether or not Bush heeded the warnings — but marches straight toward the future in “Fahrenheit 9/11” and asks looks directly at the damage this re-instilled fear is doing. All of his films — in spite of their high profile antics, or because of their high profile antics — really put the people back in the driver’s seat, and ask us, plead with us, to lift the clutch, and move.

The critics, the naysayers, the standard-bearers who claim Moore’s movies are real documentaries might just be angry that nonfiction audio-visual essays about the soberest of topics can be this much fun. I can only offer one piece of advice on that: Don’t be too sad that Michael Moore is entertaining you. You’ll start crying soon enough.