Monday, November 7, 2011

Scares and Shames

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2007)

I think I make the mistake with Michael Moore of judging his work as though he were a documentarian, whereas he’s really more of a populist performance artist. I thought Bowling For Columbine had an intriguing angle on America’s self-fuelling culture of fear, but I barely got anything new out of Fahrenheit 911, and the messy opportunism turned me off. Nevertheless, it was a huge commercial success (which if the audience I saw it with was anything to go by, consisted entirely of preaching to the converted) and then won an Oscar for best documentary. Which added up to a lot of anticipation for his new film Sicko, focusing on the failings of the US health care system.


The premise is again familiar. Some fifty million Americans are uninsured, and for those with some kind of coverage, it’s a hopeless David vs. Goliath struggle against venal insurance companies who pull every trick in the book to avoid ever cutting a cheque, denying treatment for the flimsiest and most bureaucratic of reasons. Consequently, the health and longevity of Americans drifts steadily down compared to the rest of the world, with no hope of redemption in sight from a lobbyist-swamped system. This all compares wretchedly to the single payer systems that operate in Canada, France and the U.K. Even the maligned Cuba, as Moore illustrates in his film’s most notorious stunt, shows more basic decency toward ailing 9/11 rescue workers than the homeland. Bottom line – America should do better.

I wouldn't argue with any of this. Neither would anyone in the film – there’s no one on screen who’s invited to. Although Moore emphasizes the volume of case studies he digested in developing Sicko, he doesn’t seem to have done much real research beyond accumulating a big bag of anecdotes and horror stories. By asking a British doctor how much he makes (it translates to around US$200K) and illustrating the comfortable – but not extravagant – life available on that, he seems to be advocating for more rigorous cost control of medical salaries within a centralized system, but he doesn’t even start to muse on how the transition to such a structure might be effected. And he doesn’t touch at all on the biggest issue of all – that technology, longevity and spiraling expectations places unsustainable strain on the systems of the countries he idolizes. In Canada, for instance, you can plausibly argue that the proportion of public spending siphoned into health care (particularly with so little emphasis on prevention and wellness) is not rational as a strategy for future survival. Even if, patient by patient, it’s the “right thing to do.”

Moore’s best sequence in the film, harking back to what worked well in Columbine, critiques the oppressive cycle of American life, in which debt and fear leave too many people pathetic and compliant, against the galvanizing French tradition of public action and protest. Likewise, the egregious US propaganda against “socialized medicine” would never fly in Britain, which more correctly understands its National Health Service as a triumph of democracy, forged from the ruins of the Second World War; the goodwill of 9/11, by contrast, was squandered on military fiascos and complacent or self-interested policies. You wish Moore would follow these trains of thought more fully. But I don’t think he can: I don’t think he’s got the intellectual goods to go any further, and in any event, for everything that’s staring him in the face, he’s still a patriotic American, and makes sure to pack the film with pointless tributes to the greatness of the country and its people.

If he really confronted the citizenship with the extent of their collective failure, his movie wouldn’t be able to sustain the decent, shambling, more-in-sorrow-than-anger tone vital to the Moore persona. So Sicko is as probably as good as it gets from him – interesting in parts, inevitably affecting in others, but frankly not as useful a contribution to serious thinking as any day’s edition of a good newspaper. The fact that people don’t see this, and treat Moore as a serious (if imperfect) contributor to our public debate is merely a function of the same laziness that messes up the big issues in the first place.


On now to different kinds of scary movies. In Mikhael Hafstrom’s 1408, John Cusack is a once-promising author now churning out various guides to America’s haunted hotspots, while believing in ghosts about as much as he does in anything else. He takes on the biggest challenge of them all, to spend a night in room 1408 of a boutique New York hotel, where dozens of people have perished over the years. And you know, it doesn’t work out to be a good night for him.

It’s based on a Stephen King story, and seems essentially like a reworking of The Shining. This prompts a somewhat unfair if inevitable comparison with Stanley Kubrick’s version of that book, which has a structural complexity and thematic intrigue lacking in Hafstrom’s film. 1408 is pretty gripping on its own terms though – it builds well and expertly controls its tone. Cusack is a very good centre, even if his character is conceived in rather clich├ęd terms, and Samuel L Jackson really nails his small role as the discouraging hotel manager.

Live Free or Die Hard

Maybe the prospect of another Bruce Willis action flick is frightening enough in itself, although Live Free or Die Hard is a return to the site of his greatest successes (I have to say though I’ve never previously heard the first Die Hard praised so consistently as it was by reviewers putting down the new flick). The film is an entertaining yarn, much more solidly written than many action flicks, with a focused, unfussy air about it.

The theme is cyber-terrorism: a group of computer whizzes plans to cripple America’s technology infrastructure, and in the process to empty most of its bank accounts. It’s all intriguingly depicted and, to my inexpert perspective at least, somewhat plausible. The master villain, played by Timothy Olyphant, is a former employee of the department of Homeland Security who fell out with his bosses and now exploits his inside knowledge for evil; better for him to be the exploiter, he says, than some foreigner. In this I couldn’t help detecting an echo of how the economy has been plundered by the Bush elite, all under the umbrella of patriotism and a free market. Willis is known to be a Republican though, so maybe I’m overreaching there. Or maybe it’s that the Bush elite has perfected mendacity in so many forms that almost any cartoon villainy will now suggest an easy metaphor.

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