Michael Moore has never had trouble getting publicity for his documentaries. His subjects–a meeting with the CEO of GM, gun control, the Iraq war–lend themselves to easy media coverage in the first place. And Moore’s outsized persona and comfort in front of the camera have made him an interviewer’s darling and a publicist’s dream. As I write this, he’s in downtown Chicago leading a rally with Studs Terkel and Hyde Park’s own Quentin Young. The rally is in support of national health care which, by no coincidence at all, is the theme of Moore’s latest movie, Sicko.

I have no problem with Moore’s tactics, just as I have little problem with his movies. I suspect in 30 years, when the controversies over his films have died away, they’ll be seen for what they are: brilliantly provocative, populist and progressive. Roger and Me is still one of the most accomplished debuts of the last 20 years. Bowling for Columbine is, for all the brouhaha over gun control, much more about the media and how it manipulates us through fear. On that front, it’s spectacularly insightful. And while I wasn’t as thrilled with Fahrenheit 9/11, that film looks a lot better three years later. Check it out from a dvd store and tell me Moore wasn’t ahead of his time.

Sicko is absolutely timely. A searing indictment of the American health care system, it attempts to put a human face on what we know is happening across our country–people don’t have health insurance, those that do often are kicked off for the least little reason, and even those who think they have health care are often horribly surprised to find what’s not covered by their insurance. The movie’s opening scenes introduce us to several people who’ve had the worst-case experiences. One man had two fingers severed and had to decide which one he could most afford to have re-attached. A homeless woman is discharged from a hospital, put in a cab and dumped at a rescue mission while she still has an iv in her arm and bandages on her head, all because she had no insurance. A woman is knocked unconscious in a car accident. Later she finds she’s stuck with the ambulance bill because it wasn’t pre-approved. A mother’s daughter develops an extremely high fever and is told she’ll have to take her to a different hospital because the one closest to her isn’t covered by her insurance; the child later dies as a result.

sicko02-resized.jpgMoore also examines how health insurance companies do their best not to pay for those people actually covered under their policies. Whole departments are created to minimize costs and reject claims. Investigators are sent out to discover “pre-existing” conditions. Loopholes are discovered that allow the company to cancel someone’s insurance just when they need it most. As Moore puts it, “You didn’t slip through the cracks. You were swept toward that crack.”

I’m sure Sicko could’ve gone on and on with these kinds of stories (Moore received over 25,000 emails when he posted an Internet notice asking for people’s tales of health insurance). But Moore realizes that putting a human face on the problem is only one part of his task. He has to counter the aggressive propaganda spouted by health care and doctor’s organizations about the evils of national health care and “socialized medicine.” Much of the movie then is about his travels to Canada, England and France, where he interviews patients and doctors about their experiences.

Again, don’t bother looking for balance in Moore’s interviews (apparently, Paris is a paradise). But as I told my friend Garth, if you want to see the other side, just watch CNN, MSNBC and of course FOX as they parade lobbyists–oops, I mean experts–to explain why a national health service wouldn’t work. This despite the fact that pretty much the entire Western world has a national health service. I also appreciate that Moore anticipates various scare tactics the industry uses (you’ll have to wait months to get critical care, you won’t be able to choose your doctor, doctors will be forced to work for peanuts) and reveals them as the lies they are.

Even better, Moore actually examines how the health industry, buttressed by our gullible media, uses fear to keep people from demanding change. Moore is the first mainstream voice I’ve heard make the compelling argument that enormous levels of student loan debt and the deep fear of losing one’s job (and, therefore, one’s health insurance) have created a society in which people are demoralized into thinking they can’t do any better, into merely accepting their lot in life no matter how desperate it is. In this way, Moore is doing more than calling for radical change in our health care. He’s calling for radical change in our democracy–for the poor and middle class to stand up and take back their government, to not accept the lies that spew forth from Washington politicians and corporate lobbyists but to demand that government serve the people and not the other way around.

To accomplish this, Moore avoids the gotcha interviews he’s used in the past (that always made me feel sorry for the poor person on the other side of the mic). Instead, he just shows us speeches from various politicians and then exposes the contradictions. And while most of the bad guys are corporate lobbyists and Republican officials (George W. Bush has a couple howlers), he also takes Hillary and other feeble Democrats to task.

If all of this sounds dry and uninvolving, think again. Moore uses his aw-shucks, blue collar act (and it is an act) to highly amusing affect. He embodies the dumb American abroad in Europe, but his mock astonishment at other health care systems is hugely entertaining. Even the trip to Cuba which has received all the right-wing criticism is much funnier than you would expect. Furthermore, Moore’s editing (and his editing team of Geoffrey Richman, Christopher Seward and Dan Swietlik) is razor sharp, often setting up powerful contrasts and laugh-out-loud moments. And the movie flows beautifully from scene to scene, while never forgetting that the audience isn’t a bunch of policy wonks but regular Americans wondering what needs to happen. What needs to happen is that people need to see Sicko. It’s a gloriously unbalanced piece of agitprop and required viewing.

Sicko: four 1/2 stars, out of five