Paul Arthur recently wrote about the idea of "aesthetic ethics" in relation to documentary filmmaking in an issue of Film Comment. Arthur's argument was that aesthetic ethics are part of the visual landscape in documentary films whereas in narrative cinema the truth and ethical deliberation goes on behind closed doors. It's no small surprise that Michael Moore
was name-checked specifically in the article: His manipulative theatrics have always been poised right next to his muckraker sensibilities. Returning from his Fahrenheit 9/11 (basically the catalyst for the revival of popular documentary filmmaking), Moore goes broader and more heartfelt for his latest investigation, SiCKO.
In case you've been living comfortably in a condo located under a rock, SiCKO takes the world of health-care, HMOs, and the U.S. medical system into the ring for 12 punishing rounds. Jabs are delivered by horror stories of denied claims, uppercuts delivered by an intense study of how awful our medical care is (we place 37th, right above Slovenia). The most fascinating parts deliberate the capital gains of the American medical industry, ostensibly outing the entire shindig as a capitalist enterprise rather than an aid for humanity. Reaching all the way back to Nixon's idea to privatize health care with Edgar Kaiser, Moore's portrait of the medical establishment is coal-black and more clear-eyed than he's been in years. Article continues below
At one point, Moore takes a group of 9/11 workers and uninsured Americans to Guantanamo Bay. Turns out Guantanamo has the only universal health care coverage in the United States, offered expressly to our so-called enemies. In his patented fashion, Moore asks for them to see his passengers and is met with a loud siren. So, he goes to Cuba and the workers are all given express help and are honored by the Cuban Fire Brigade for their bravery. As with many Moore moments, this can get a little tough to swallow; it's more likely that they heard Moore was coming round and wanted to look good on camera. And remember that list where we just beat out Slovenia? Yeah, well, Cuba was right under Slovenia. This, however, doesn't distract from the miasma of human misery that engulfs the rest of the film, creating Moore's most sincere portrait of American life in the trenches since the groundbreaking Roger & Me.
Take it as a mix of documentary and partisan filmmaking if it suits you better, but our cultural mindset hasn't been questioned so harshly on film in a long time. Moore's biggest enemy is entitlement: the American way of life as "I worked for it so I deserve the rewards" rather than "I worked for it to make our way of life better." Political leaders and the grey-haired men they work for have been manipulating this ideology for years and, as a foreigner points out, we are afraid of our government much more than they are of us. Moore's trips to France and London are repetitive in how he frames the U.S. medical establishment as a bad joke, but honestly, that's what it is: a bad joke delivered with the sensibility of a 10-year-old. Beyond the questions of ethical framing, Moore's ego gives itself a hearty pat-on-the-back and a cold, hard slap to our zombie culture.