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Worry Warts

Tragic and depressing, Michael Moore's latest is also cause for concern.

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I strained my shoulder a few hours before I saw a preview screening of Michael Moore's new documentary on America's health care system, "Sicko." As I watched and listened to stories of people who'd been failed by this system, the shoulder began to hurt more. Though irrational fear has been a theme in Moore's films ever since "Bowling for Columbine," the director himself has found a way to scare people this time. "Sicko" is not Moore's best work, and it inspires many of the same criticisms. And though his other films have their share of the tragic, this is his first definitive tragedy. This is the first time you watch the muckraking man on the street and feel both real pity and a creeping terror. One singular notion throbs like a sore joint throughout: If what's happened to the poor people Moore talks about happenst to you, that means more money for the insurance companies.

"Sicko" achieves this realization while offering hardly any new information. America, we are reminded, is the only Western country without universal health care for its citizens. Everyone knows that. Just about everyone also knows how trying and dangerous our system of managed care can be. It's often difficult to get treatment and coverage, and for some people — even with insurance, mind you — impossible. What Moore accomplishes is to bring all this together and put it in context, to show that the only thing free and universal about our system is the terrible cruelty of it.

You may often be annoyed by your HMO's stubborn and confusing policies. Some people, we learn, die from them. We learn about people whose HMOs won't cover a procedure or allow a person to be treated by a certain facility — even if it's the only procedure needed or there's no time to get to another facility. We hear from former employees in the industry, including physicians, who claim that the insurance companies profit from these situations and so encourage them.

Moore also tries to quash once and for all the notion that socialized care inevitably means worse care. He enumerates all the supposed ills of socialized medicine, usually through footage of politicians and industry reps warning about them. You want to know what socialized heath care is like, George H.W. Bush asks cryptically in one archival moment, "Go ask a Canadian."

So Moore asks a Canadian, several of them. And he asks the British. And the French. And Americans living in these countries. They all love their free health care. And lest you suppose it is only a luxury afforded to wealthy nations not afflicted by poverty and other social problems, Moore asks the Cubans too. They don't pay either, and the care seems pretty good.

In each country Moore finds damning comparisons to our health care system. "Sicko" is strongest when engaged in these adventures, even though Moore overplays the innocent abroad, "aw-shucks"ing his way from French condo to U.K. flat as he pretends to be shocked by the better health care standards of other countries. He's as omnipresent as ever and even more hammy than usual. Some of his stunts, like ferrying a group of 9/11 rescue workers out to Guantanamo Bay to see if they can get the same health care as the prisoners at Gitmo, inspire shudders of embarrassment. But they also reveal scenes of heartbreaking humanity missing in other treatments of the subject. When a distressed 9/11 rescue worker and mother of two finds she can buy her $120-a-dose respiratory medication for 5 cents in Cuba, the injustice of it makes her weep, and you feel like joining her.

My shoulder began to hurt worse by the film's end, or perhaps I began to grow more worried, or maybe both. "Sicko" is depressing, and Moore can't avoid releasing the tension with morbid humor. He ends with a joke, but leaves the viewer without a clue as to a solution. Perhaps his next documentary should be on the inability of documentaries to fix social problems. Based on the success of "Fahrenheit 9/11," you doubt execs over at Kaiser Permanente are losing sleep. In fact, they may want to invest in more docs who focus on the failings of Western democratic power, since they are often just as entertaining, and entertainment isn't exactly an ingredient for revolution.

Moore made millions off his last diatribe, then moved on to the next blockbuster issue. Is it a surprise people watch these things and quickly move on as well? Personally, I left more worried about how I was going to navigate the current health care system than inspired to do something about it. 113 min. (PG-13) S

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