I inadvertently ended up with a great double-bill when, thanks to some slippery interweb pirates and a clever coworker, I got to watch Michael Moore’s new film SiCKO last week, right after having rented Cristi Puiu’s 2005 film The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. (The latter I found at the local Blockbuster, if’n you can believe it. The cashier, when I was checking out, tried to read the name of the film aloud and then said, “I don’t think this film is in English. Did you realize that?” “I believe it is subtitled,” was my reply. “Most people think that because this is North America, all films will be in English,” he informed me. “The subtitles are in English,” I pointed out. He looked confused. I looked heavenward.)
But I digress. (What else is new?)
Unless you have been living under a rock for the past few months, you already know that SiCKO is Moore’s critique of the U.S. health care system, in which he compares it to the health care systems of Canada, Britain, France, and Cuba. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is a glimpse into one Bucharest man’s long (last) night of abuse at the hands of the Romanian (eek, socialist!) health care system.
My conclusion: I would like to move to France, plz.
Having wasted spent an hour and a half in the waiting room of the local walk-in clinic last Friday, in an effort to have an anti-psychotic prescription renewed, I am quite well aware that our health care system here in Canada is overworked and underfunded. But at least I didn’t have injury added to insult by being made to pay for the (dis)pleasure of sitting there twiddling my thumbs and paging through an issue of InStyle magazine from the previous decade. Southwestern Ontario is notoriously doctor-poor—so much so that we have to, basically, bribe doctors to locate here. (There are two 50/50 draw tickets on my parents’ fridge: half the winning pot is aimed at a fund to attract doctors to the area, I kid you not.) My timing was good when I returned to Canada because a new doctor had just come to town and I was able to apply to become her patient and was accepted. (Yes, I had to fill out an application. That was a new one on me, too. I don’t know if I’d’ve been rejected if my health wasn’t as good as it is. Mebbe she’d’ve thought I’d be too much work. Dunno. It’s moot now, though: I’m in like Flynn. Unlike thousands of folks in my neck of the woods.) I’d hoped to get a prescription renewed last Friday without an appointment but was unable. My doctor happened to be the one on duty at the walk-in clinic that day so rather than make an appointment for who-knows-when, I elected to wait and see her that day. Shoulda brought something to read with me, ‘cause I’m not exaggerating about the age of that InStyle I was stuck with. (Oh, okaaaay… Yeah, I am exaggerating.)
To me, the potential financial calamity of suffering a serious health issue in the States outweighs the advantage of being able to outright buy immediate care (if you can afford it, that is). Because, as Moore’s film shows, you may think your health insurance covers you but there’s a good chance you will be unpleasantly surprised when push comes to shove.
SiCKO isn’t about Americans who don’t have health insurance. It’s about Americans who do. And it’s about how their insurance carriers routinely leave them high and dry when they most need them. He presents numerous examples (heartbreaking situations that would actually have more affect on this viewer if Moore’s voiceover narration wasn’t delivered in what one reviewer I found called such a treacly ironic voice) of Americans being ill-served by their (broken) health care system.
Coincidentally, just a couple days before my coworker gave me a copy of SiCKO, I’d rented the 2005 Romanian film The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. It is an appallingly black comedy that chronicles the last hours of Bucharest senior citizen Dante Remus Lazarescu as he descends through Romania’s seven circles of hellth care service. At first, I thought this was a documentary–because it has the look (hand-held camera) and feel (the lines sound so natural) of something shot on-the-fly, and the first half of it seems to be shot in real time as the stricken Lazarescu awaits the arrival of an ambulance at his apartment. But, no–it’s fiction. And while it does take an unblinking (and mouth agape) look at the overworked, understaffed health care system in Romania and its rough treatment of Our Dante, it’s not meant as an indictment of it. Rather, according to filmmaker Puiu, it is about love–or, in this case, the absence of love. Because poor Dante is treated with precious little of it as he is shuttled, unwanted, from one emergency room to another to another as he lay dying on a gurney. It’s a long film (two and a half hours) but it is a compelling film—it’s well-written, works on a couple different levels (considering the name of the lead character, the film obviously has an allegorical subtext), and presents flawless performances from a multitudinous cast. I’d never heard of it before I picked it off the shelf at Blockbuster and it turned out to be one of the best films I have seen in a long time. I highly recommend it.
I had a brief look through some of the reviews of Puiu’s film—specifically searching for reviews from countries whose health care systems are held up as good models by Moore in his film. You see, while I was watching it, it occurred to me that I was pretty sure I’d read stories about this sort of thing happening in Toronto (although not to the extremes poor Mr. Lazarescu suffers)—ambulances getting directed from one emergency room to another because of overcrowding. Granted, the events in the film happen because a major accident that kills and maims dozens has happened, overwhelming the city’s emergency rooms; Puiu doesn’t let the viewer forget that this is an unusual night. Interestingly, yeah, I found this review that notes that the circumstances might’nt seem all that unusual to British audiences, either.
You see, one of the arguments against Moore’s film has been the way he has painted his comparison in black and white… as if there is little good about the American health care system and there is little bad about the others. This, of course, is simplistic. I think what he’s trying to get at, though, is that there needs to be a radical shift in the way his country thinks. In referring to those countries where universal health care is employed, he says they live in a world of “we” instead of a world of “me”. No matter what their differences, people take care of each other in these places. As a French doctor says, the principle of solidarity means that those who are better off help take care of those who are worse off. ‘You pay according to your means and receive according to your needs,’ he says. Former MP Tony Benn reads from the 1948 leaflet that was distributed to explain the U.K.’s then-new National Health Service. In it, people are told that the new service will take care of all their medical, dental, and nursing care. It is for everyone and while there is no charge for it, it is not a charity—people are paying for it largely through their taxes. But the idea is to ‘relieve your money worries in times of illness’. Contrast that sort of (evil commie!) thinking with a sequence in Moore’s film wherein we see, via security survelliance camera tape, footage of a disoriented elderly woman being dumped curbside in L.A.’s skidrow, still wearing her hospital gown but with the ID bracelet removed so she can’t be traced back to the hospital that deposited her there. She was abandoned because she could not afford to pay for the medical care she needed. Jesus wept! Here is somebody’s daughter, somebody’s mother, somebody’s grandmother. And we see her treated like a piece of garbage. As Dr. Aleida Guevara (daughter of Che) points out, there is something wrong when the richest country in the world will not do all it can to take care of its most vulnerable citizens but a poor country like Cuba will.
Moore compares the British response to the devastation of WW2 on its landscape and its people to the American response to the devastation of 9/11 on its landscape and its people. In the wake of WW2, Britain developed universal health care to unite its people. In the wake of 9/11, America went to war to unite its people. In light of this, I reckon Moore’s wish for a change in thinking in his country is understandable. As he points out, the United States has already “socialized” some of its services (he uses examples like firefighters, libraries, and schools) and the country hasn’t fallen under the boot of the Red Menace. And there is certainly ample evidence that the health care system in the States needs reform. ‘When we see a better idea from another country, we grab it. If they make a better car, we drive it. If they make a better wine, we drink it.’ So why, he wonders, does the country refuse to adopt the type of health care service that is working in other countries? As you can imagine, the government, the health insurance companies, and the drug companies (and their maddening mingling) are the villains of the piece.
As a longtime Moore fan, I am surprised to admit that this film was a bit of a disappointment for me… I liked that he took a much lower profile than usual (he doesn’t even appear onscreen until 46 minutes into the film) but, as I mentioned earlier, the disingenuous tone of his narration this time was a little off-putting. And the stunt of taking 9/11 rescue workers to Cuba for medical treatment didn’t sit well with me. Perhaps if one of the rescue workers had come up with the idea—rather than Moore—I’d’ve reacted more favourably toward it. But the whole Moore-As-Naïve-American act is starting to wear a bit thin. I mean, ostensibly, they headed to Cuba to avail themselves of the same level of free health care that the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay get. Of course, any viewer who actually thought that Moore really believed they could get care there is more naïve than Moore pretends to be! The lowest moment of the film for me was the meeting between the American 9/11 rescue workers and the Cuban firefighters who told their American counterparts that they had wanted to be able to come to New York and help with the rescue efforts but were prevented from doing so. The cynic in me balked at the overt sentimentality of it, I think, because it felt shoe-horned into this film. It was something that would’ve had a comfortable place in Fahrenheit 9/11 but not here.
Nevertheless, I suspect it is Moore’s purpose to kick off a debate about health care reform in his country and I think he will succeed in doing that with this film.
SiCKO opens in theatres tomorrow.
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is available on dvd.
→ originally published 2007-06-28