Michael Moore makes his strongest film in years -- if not ever

The subject of Sicko is the American health insurance system — not, Moore explains, as it concerns the 50 million Americans who don't have insurance at all, but rather as it concerns the 250 million of us who do. We are the ones, Moore argues, who are living in the real fool's paradise. And by the end of Sicko's information-packed, often hilarious, frequently stomach-churning two hours, it's hard to disagree with him. Of course, it's never exactly been easy to counter Moore, whose patented bullying, bombastic, self-serving approach to nonfiction filmmaking rarely allows anyone to get a word in edgewise. I've been critical of him for that in the past, and for what often feels like a self-sabotaging lack of confidence in the strength of his material and the intelligence of his audience.

Sicko isn't entirely free of such gestures, chief among them Moore's third-act boat ride to Cuba in the company of some 9/11 rescue workers who have been unable to receive the medical care they need in the U.S. That sequence is far from the pro-Castro propaganda some have already accused it of being, but it's one of the few instances in Sicko where Moore grabs the reins and rides to his defenseless subjects' rescue. More often, he stands back and puts the burden of activism where it belongs: on the audience.

The other thing that makes Sicko Moore's strongest film in years — if not ever — is its steadfast refusal to turn health care into a polarizing political issue, except to say that pretty much all American politicians, regardless of rank or affiliation, have left us to fend for ourselves. He fetishizes Hillary Clinton as the once-upon-a-time potential savior of the universal-health-care movement, only to then vilify her for drinking the insurance lobbyists' Kool-Aid. In probably the film's most amusing sequence (and certainly the one most beloved by the audience at Cannes last month), Moore travels to France, where he finds oodles of average Joes and Janes (including a few expat Americans) living la bonne vie thanks not only to socialized health care (including doctors who make house calls 24/7) but to a slew of other enviable social services, including state-sponsored child care and mandatory month-long vacations. Oh, and it turns out that the frogs live longer than us, too.

Say what you will about Moore: He can be didactic, reductive, and repetitive, and I'm still not convinced that his plainspoken Will Rogers routine is anything more than an extremely well-polished act. But Sicko is the first time in years that I've believed Moore genuinely cares ... about something other than his own ego.

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