Four stars (PG-13)

I’ve not been looking forward to writing this. Every time I review a Michael Moore movie, I catch hell online. Hard-core fans of Moore condemn me for criticizing him. Meanwhile, Moore-haters say all sorts of awful things about me for praising him. I realize that, since my job is to assess the work of others, I shouldn’t bitch when people do the same to mine, but it’s all very headache inducing nonetheless.

The reason I opened this piece with a personal note is that I’m trying to soften you up in the hope that, regardless of your feelings about Moore, you’ll want to be nicer than the people I described and give me a fair chance to convince you to see his important new movie, Sicko.

Sicko, a sorta-documentary about health care in America, is the most subdued, mature film Michael Moore has made to date. Bear in mind, of course, that I’m grading on a curve. Moore’s bad habits are still in evidence, but he keeps them in check much better here than in Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 911 (both of which made my Top 10 lists despite the many infuriating parts).

Nearly 50 million Americans are uninsured. Many of those who have insurance must deal with companies doing their damnedest to deny their claims. On a graph ranking health care systems around the world, the United States ranks 38th, just above Slovenia.

The film opens with anecdotes from people who have suffered because of the system. I won’t recount any of their stories here because they will have more impact heard directly. Suffice to say: Holy shit! Incidentally, Moore, apparently aware of how polarizing a figure he has become, stays off camera during the first 30-40 minutes of the film, offering narration between the nightmarish tales. When he finally appears on screen, he’s low-key, sitting beside a couple as they share their health care misadventure.

Moore then turns his attention to the system itself, the insurance companies that reward doctors for denying claims, that employ experts to study claims looking for any excuse to refuse payment. A sequence on the birth of HMOs effectively uses a taped exchange between Richard Nixon and White House aide John Ehrlichman.

The question keeps coming up: Why is American health care in the hands of the private sector when citizens receive government supported free services from the police and fire departments, public schools and the library? Moore travels to a few of the many countries that provide free universal health care, Canada, Great Britain and France. His rose-colored visions will be criticized by many and more power to them, but no matter how troublesome the other countries’ free health care systems may actually be, at least they have a process in place to tend to the well-being of their neighbors.

Sicko wraps up with one of those Michael Moore stunts that entertains his fans and infuriates his foes. This one involves him taking a group of people in need of medical treatment, including some Sept. 11 rescue volunteers, to Guantanamo Bay to ask for the same free health care the prisoners receive. Turned away, he travels on to Havana, where — Surprise! — everyone receives tender loving care by warm-hearted doctors in front of the cameras.

Here’s the thing. Yes, Sicko paints a picture of free health care in other counties that doesn’t show any downside. Yes, the whole Guantanamo Bay/Havana business plays more like a sideshow than an indictment. But the irritating parts of the film do not significantly lessen its impact. In the United States of America, we do not care for our own. Sicko drives that horrible point home. The film is enlightening, educational, disturbing and deeply moving, with welcome bits of humor. I hope you choose to see it.

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