Michael Moore’s politics, part II

Jason Stahl

I have been writing columns for the Daily for 10 months now, and in that time there have been a few moments of regret. One of these occurred after my last column “Michael Moore’s Politics” ran in the June 20 issue of the paper. In the column, I was mainly writing about the way in which Moore is choosing to promote his new movie “Sicko” – particularly in more conservative venues like the Oprah Winfrey show. However, after the column ran, I began to think that it was ultimately unfair to discuss a movie I had not seen – even if I was mainly limiting my discussion to the movie’s promotion. So, having now seen the movie, I thought it was only fair to write a follow-up in order to discuss where my first column went wrong and where it went right.

Having now seen the movie, I think it is safe to say that my first column was unbalanced. I used almost two-thirds of my first piece to criticize Moore while only one paragraph to discuss his strengths. Again, I attribute this to the flawed way in which Moore is choosing to promote “Sicko.” Nevertheless, such an imbalance is totally disproportionate to the strengths and weaknesses of the movie itself. Indeed, “Sicko” is one of Moore’s finest films – right up there with his first film, “Roger and Me.”

As I said in my last column, it seemed that “Sicko” was going to be Moore’s savviest political film to date. In this regard, the film delivered. Gone are the “gotcha” moments from films past (think the Charlton Heston scenes from “Bowling for Columbine”) and the politically confusing moments which clouded his last film “Fahrenheit 9/11” (the Saudi demonization and the stuff about the Afghanistan pipeline).

Instead, this film is much more sophisticated in that Moore is clearly thinking about rebutting his right-wing detractors within the movie itself as opposed to doing so after the movie comes out. In this regard, the most effective tool of the film is the way it engages in a comparative study of the U.S. health-care system and of the systems available in countries with universal coverage systems, such as Canada, France, Great Britain and even Cuba. Within these comparisons, all the conservative arguments against universal systems are dealt with, including long lines, unhappy doctors, unhappy patients and an overbearing government bureaucracy.

Moreover, Moore’s film is sophisticated in another respect: explaining why the United States is so woefully behind other industrialized countries in regards to health care. In an interview with an old British Labour Party leader, he points to our lack of a tradition of social democracy. With old audio of Ronald Reagan shilling for the American Medical Association in the ’50s, tapes of Richard Nixon approving HMOs and video of Republican backlash against health-care reform in 1994, Moore succinctly shows the history of conservative opposition to the issue. And finally, in multiple ways, Moore shows how fear – fear of change, fear of rocking the boat, fear of the government and fear of losing what little we do have – keeps us from changing a broken system.

In all of these ways, I think the statement from my last column that Moore was “losing his edge” is incorrect and short-sighted. His edge is still there, but his cuts are more like that of a master chef. While I still find Moore’s portrayal of Guantanamo Bay problematic in the way I discussed in my last column, these scenes are ultimately a small part of the film – an unnecessary ploy in an otherwise smart and sophisticated film that could go a long way towards moving the debate over universal health care forward in this country.

Jason Stahl welcomes comments at [email protected]