Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Film | Politics

July 12, 2007

Will 'Sicko' Influence the Election?

Michael Moore's new film compellingly explains why the American health-care system is broken. But will it kick up enough dust to cause any real changes?

Sarah Arnquist

How can we treat people like this? Michael Moore asks this double-edged question in his newest film, Sicko, which tells the tragic tales of insured people who have been poorly served by the US health-care system. Moore's film portrays insurance executives and the power they wield in Washington as the ultimate evil corrupting health care in America. He contends that in their pursuit of plum profits, they deny lifesaving care to those most in need. Then, unlike in his previous films, he offers a policy solution in the form of government-run, universal health care, often dubbed socialized medicine. He brings his cameras to Canada, France, Britain, and even Cuba to show how much better off their citizens are with free, national health care.

Courtesy Michaelmoore.com
Breaking both Hollywood and political conventions, Moore's marketing strategy for 'Sicko' relies on grassroots political strategies.

Courtesy Michaelmoore.com

Sicko is obviously a one-sided diatribe against the insurance industry, but it bashes both Republicans and Democrats. Moore highlights the influence of the insurance and pharmaceutical lobbies by putting a price tag on what they gave to Congressional members of both parties. He points out that after enacting the 2003 Medicare Modernization Act, congressmen and congressional aides left the Hill for lucrative positions in the pharmaceutical industry (New England Journal of Medicine). He gives Hillary Clinton props for attempting health-care reform more than a decade ago, but points out that she's now the second-highest recipient of campaign donations from the health-care industry.

What Moore's populist film does better than any political campaign or previous marketing strategy is turn health-care reform into fodder for coffee-table conversation across America. He provides enough comedy and tragedy to keep people's attention for nearly two hours of health care talk—a normally eye glazing topic. Five 13-year-old boys attended the same matinée screening as me. Surprised to see them, I asked for a review. "He has good ideas, but they'll never happen here because Americans care too much about making money," said a towheaded boy in braces. (The film has grossed about $12 million, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.)

If teenagers are now thinking about America's health-care system due to Sicko, will it influence the next national election by spurring enough people to ask Moore's moral questions of those running for office in 2008?

Political commentator Ari Melber doubts it. "The next election is 17 months away," he writes on the Huffington Post. "With two summers between now and November 2008, this movie will not be on Americans' minds when it's time to vote." Moreover, Melber says, most Democratic candidates are avoiding—not latching onto—Sicko's publicity, and Republicans should feel secure their base won't be affected; after all, it is Michael Moore.

But health care certainly will be a top, if not the top, domestic issue in the next election and Sicko is fueling the reform fire. Breaking both Hollywood and political conventions, Moore's marketing strategy for Sicko relies on grassroots political strategies. He has given tacit support to viewers who illegally download his movie (MTV). Among the film's premier locations were the early primary state New Hampshire and the California state capitol, where he teamed up with the nurses' union, which supports single-payer legislation. Sicko's distributor, the Weinstein Company, hired a Democratic phone vendor to call thousands of potential viewers and persuade them to see the film—something usually reserved for getting people to the polls (Slate). Moore is doing more than entertaining. He's trying to build a mandate for health-care reform by spurring his viewers to action.

"Though Sicko viewers may feel impassioned by the film's message and leave the theater ready to vote for national health care, they won't find any leading candidates offering such a policy."
Measuring Sicko's political impact will be nearly impossible because unprecedented action around health care started before the movie hit theaters. Every presidential candidate from both sides had already promised to overhaul the health-care system—effectively creating a post-election mandate. Though Sicko viewers may feel impassioned by the film's message and leave the theater ready to vote for national health care, they won't find any leading candidates offering such a policy. Most Republican candidates focus their reforms on tax breaks and easing regulations to promote consumer choice and make insurance more affordable. The prevailing Democratic reform proposals resemble the public-and-private hybrid system currently being implemented in Massachusetts. Former Governor Mitt Romney (now a Republican presidential candidate) signed it into law, but has said it's not a national solution.

So what will be Sicko's lasting impact? Maybe Moore will take the millions he makes from the movie and fund a lobbying group in Washington to counter the health-care industry. Maybe he'll even bring some of his wealthy friends along with him. (He and Al Gore can use their Oscars as ammunition for social change.) After watching Sicko, Americans may be more leery of why their insurance premiums are getting fatter, while their coverage keeps getting skinnier. Millions who never thought about health care—like the teenage boys at my showing—might now question the status quo. And maybe Sicko will make some middle-class voters feel more vulnerable about their health coverage and cause them to demand solutions from their elected officials.

Sarah Arnquist

Sarah Arnquist is a health reporter at the San Luis Obispo Tribune, a daily newspaper on California's Central Coast.







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Article by Sarah Arnquist

Sarah Arnquist is a health reporter at the San Luis Obispo Tribune, a daily newspaper on California's Central Coast.

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