{mosimage}I grew up in two full-service welfare states, so when I first came to the United States in the summer of 1978, I didn’t pay much heed to an old friend from England who welcomed me to America, “a great country unless you happen to be old, poor or sick — and God help you if it’s all three, because no one else will.” So it came as a nasty surprise when, several months later, I did the math and discovered that it was cheaper for me to fly home to London to get an emergency root canal on the National Health Service than to run up a fat bill in Boston, where I was an underinsured graduate student.

It wasn’t just the dominance of privatized medicine that shocked me, but the fact that, aside from my lefty academic friends, most people I met thought that health care in this country worked pretty well, and certainly better than in all those commie Western European nations where health care is free but, so we’ve heard, you have to wait forever to get it. Nearly 30 years later, as the sorry fate of Hillary Clinton’s universal health care proposals bear out, the average American still hears “socialized medicine” as “socialist medicine,” a holdover from 1950s Red-scaremongering that’s entertainingly lampooned in Michael Moore’s flawed, vital and entirely salutary Sicko.

As with all Moore’s movies, Sicko arrives in theaters laden with prior ballast, some of it engineered by the wide-eyed, who-me director himself. Moore couldn’t (or, to borrow some of his legendary paranoia, could he?) have had anything to do with the YouTube-d clips or Internet downloads of Sicko, which freaked the brothers Weinstein into releasing the movie a week early in New York and had a security guard prowling the press screening I attended for the duration of the movie. But even a man with Moore’s billowing persecution complex shouldn’t have been surprised by the health care industry gearing up to rebut his richly deserved attack on their heedless bottom-line mentality, or by the U.S. Treasury Department getting on his case over a showy finale in which Moore schleps a bunch of ailing, unprotected 9/11 volunteers to Cuba for free treatment.

Though Moore has had the good sense to take himself out of the picture as much as his engorged ego can stand, Sicko remains full of familiar Moore-ish stunts: the snappy graphics and disembodied statistics, the adroit jerking around of our sympathies, the helpless proletarian victims led to redemption under Moore’s ample wing (only in the production notes do we learn that several of them fought and won their own battles with HMOs or private insurance companies), the slipped-in admission of Moore’s “anonymous” largess toward one of his fiercest detractors at the end. Sicko is so stuffed with stagy setups that even radical experimenters with the nonfiction form would balk at calling it a documentary.

That said, the movie is a great piece of populist outrage and a dangerously good comedy about a looming American tragedy, as Moore details — step by step and case by unspeakably cruel case — the lock-hold on American health care by drug and insurance companies, and the eagerness of politicians (including, I winced to see, Hillary herself) to be bought into submission by them. True, Moore’s picture of Western European welfare states errs on the side of rosy. Whether interviewing ?rapturous Americans in Paris, visiting with a smiling English NHS doctor who gets lavish government compensation not for plying his patients with pricey drugs but for keeping them well, or searching in vain for a billing department in a London hospital, Moore glosses over the fact that many European health systems are in deep financial crisis and increasingly unable to sustain the generous array of services put in place by post–World War II governments. My far-from-well-off parents, both closing in on 90, get all their treatments and prescriptions for free, as well as taxi fare to and from hospital visits and house calls from health visitors as needed. But they can wait months — even years — for needed care from specialized consultants, who are lured by generous salaries to a mushrooming private sector that Moore fails to mention.

Conversely, Moore has nothing but contempt for American HMOs, including those that get as close to socialized medicine as most Americans will allow. While it’s true, for example, that the Kaiser Foundation has had its share of recent scandals (patients dumped on Skid Row, treatments denied to the seriously ill), I’ve had consistently good care there, and a Kaiser surgeon did an outstanding job of uncrossing my 2-year-old daughter’s eyes, for which I was charged $2. Without health benefits from my employer, I would have been screwed, and though Moore is quite right to nail the insurers and the drug companies first, he doesn’t pay much attention to the fact that, as employers increasingly slough off responsibility for the soaring costs of employee health benefits, the ranks of the uninsured will swell to critical proportions. Nor does Moore touch on something that continues to amaze me after 30 years in this country — that those same millions continue to vote against their own interests when it comes to health care. Moore claims they’re all brainwashed, but as he concedes in the movie, European governments fear the people, while in the United States the reverse is true. Watching the tearful boatload of Americans thank the Cuban doctors for free treatment and suitcases full of dirt-cheap medicine, I wondered how many of them would, if given the chance, vote for a presidential candidate with the guts to run on a platform of universal health care. If nothing else, Sicko is an ardent call to arms for the principle that health care is not a consumer commodity, but a basic human right.

SICKO | Written and directed by MICHAEL MOORE | Produced by MOORE and MEGHAN O’HARA | Released by Lionsgate and the Weinstein Company | Citywide

Read Mel Yiasemide's post on Michael Moore's question and answer session at the Director's Guild of America.

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