Review: 'Sicko' funny and moving

As long as he keeps doing his job, Michael Moore will never dodge the controversy that has dogged him ever since he burst onto the scene with 1989’s “Roger & Me.”

Why would he want to? He has worked hard to earn his reputation as America’s foremost liberal rabble-rouser, and part of his gift is his ability to transform angry polemics into briskly paced, riveting entertainment. Without his army of detractors, who rail against his sly but sometimes uneven depictions of his favorite punching bags — among them, President Bush and the NRA — Moore might never have become the wealthy, left-wing institution he is today.

“Sicko,” his impassioned plea for national health care and a ferocious exposé of tight-fisted HMOs, has already drawn criticism at home and abroad for its alleged inaccuracies and glowing praise of Castro’s Cuba. Canadians, whom Moore singled out for praise in “Bowling for Columbine,” have balked at his depiction of their own health care system, which they claim is functional but maddeningly slow. Meanwhile, the U.S. Treasury Department has threatened legal action against the portly documentarian, suggesting that his foray onto Cuban soil may have violated a U.S. embargo.

So be it. Moore has never been one to tread lightly, and though his methods may seem extreme, he always gets his point across. Does he take shortcuts, often highlighting the evidence that supports his arguments and downplaying the rest? To some extent, yes, but Moore is as much an entertainer as an activist, and the stories he crafts are at once powerful, painfully funny and deeply moving.

“Sicko” is no exception. With its heartbreaking footage of families whose desperate need for care is ignored or denied by bottom-line-driven insurance companies — leading, in some cases, to needless loss of life — Moore’s latest film is a provocative indictment of a system rotting from within. His argument is simple, and hard to dispute: How can the most powerful nation in the world tolerate woefully inadequate health care for so many of its citizens?

There is no acceptable answer. Moore shows us state-run health services in France, Canada and England, where patients laugh at the idea of paying for MRIs, CAT scans and preventive medicine. He introduces us to a British physician (and government employee) who lives comfortably on his $200,000 annual income. He even takes a group of neglected 9/11 rescue workers, now plagued by respiratory problems and post-traumatic stress disorders, down to Guantánamo Bay, where he argues that al-Qaida terrorists receive better care than millions of Americans.

The trip to Cuba is a stunt, of course, similar to asking congressmen to enlist their children in the military, as Moore did so famously in “Fahrenheit 9/11.” Moore knows that the gates to Guantánamo will remain closed to his band of not-so-merry pranksters, so he takes them to a hospital in Havana, where they receive fast, first-rate care. The sequence is affecting, but disingenuous. The idea that a group of Americans, escorted by a celebrity and his camera crew, can wander blindly into a Cuban clinic and be treated no differently than the poorest of peasants is preposterous. But once again, Moore’s point is clear.

Moore’s most vociferous critics will always object to his methods and his politics, but whether yousupport the NRA, the Bush administration or even for-profit care providers, his prowess as a filmmaker is unquestionable. Like “Bowling for Columbine” and “Fahrenheit 9/11,” “Sicko” is a damning diatribe against a worthy target, and it unfolds simply and concisely. Is it manipulative? At times, but that does little to compromise its impact. As a long-overdue appeal for compassionate, universal health care, it may be the most important American film made this year.

Sicko ***½

Written and directed by Michael Moore

Rated PG-13

Running Time: 1 hour, 53 minutes

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