Children of the Revolution
The Latest Movies From Michael Moore And Bruce Willis Offer Two Very Different Views Of Our Great Nation
Michael Moore and Bruce Willis have built their cinematic careers in two very different forms but in surprisingly similar veins. Both tap into that durable myth of American ingenuity, that what makes this country great is the fact that its people can meet any challenge that confronts them. Moore's Flint, Mich., documentary reporter and Willis' everyman badass are men who have greatness thrust upon them, because when the time comes they step up to do what needs to be done, ordinary Americans elevated during extraordinary times. And as we slouch toward our country's commemoration of its independence declaration 231 years ago, it's worth noting just how adversarial these two men's movies are right now.
Moore's new movie is the most immediately engaging. Thanks to his incisive, if self-congratulatory, forays into docutainment as pseudopolitical investigation-cum-satire in 2002's Bowling for Columbine and 2004's Fahrenheit 9/11, no American documentarian has ever held Moore's media profile. A best-selling author as well as a successful and award-winning filmmaker, Moore's Barnumesque combination of near-genius narrative editing of existing news footage and self-righteous ego-tripping takes a bit of a backseat in Sicko, his examination of the U.S. health-care industry.
It is not, as Moore's voice-over clarifies in the opening moments, about the estimated 50 million Americans who don't have health insurance--like the man he interviews who, following a table-saw injury, has to choose which finger he wants sewn back on: the one that costs $12,000 or the one that costs $60,000. It's about the more than 250 million Americans who do--those people who mistakenly assume that, because they pay their premiums and have what sounds like a reasonable co-pay and go to the doctor, they're going to be OK. It's about the retired husband and wife he introduces who, because of the costs of her cancer medication, have to move in with their daughter's family because they can't afford to live on their own anymore. Health care for these people--for us--is Sicko's subject, and it doesn't take us--or an epidemiologist for that matter--long into the documentary to recognize that the titular ailment refers to the system, not the people.
Moore's best feature as a filmmaker is his lack of anger in the usual American talk-show sense. Not that Moore isn't angry--Fahrenheit and Columbine obviously come from somebody unsettled by the time in which he lives--but that his anger doesn't come out in screaming, spit-flinging rants. Instead, Moore doesn't take the easy way out to blame people, but the systems and organizations and decisions that influence the how and why people in power behave the way they do. To do so Moore has to figure out what the problem is, exactly, which entails going out and asking people what's wrong with health care and, in general, staying out of their way.
And for once, he does: Sicko is a galvanizing, nonpartisan rallying cry about the perils of getting sick, injured, or requiring managed care in this country. Via his own web site, Moore solicited stories of health-care coverage headaches; within weeks, he had more than 25,000 responses. He can't cover them all--and he does choose the stories that carry the most dramatic impact--but he doesn't have to manipulate these stories to highlight the problem. Over and over and over again people tell different versions of the same story: denials of payment for care or procedures or tests or hospitalization or surgery or experimental treatment or medication lead to continued sickness, decline in the quality of life, increasingly massive debts, and death. In one interview, a former claims analyst says that insurance companies could even decline coverage for a pre-existing condition a person didn't know about through a clause that stipulated that the patient should have known about it.
Worse, Moore pinpoints the beginnings of the managed-care years to a taped 1971 conversation between President Nixon and John Ehrlichman that leads to the HMO Act of 1973. Sicko then quickly assays how health maintenance organizations and pharmaceutical companies have bought federal politicians to protect their big business, which reaps greater and greater profits by not paying for its insured's medical costs. An hour into Sicko and you're looking around for an HMO claims adjuster or managed-care lobbyist to throttle.
And right about now Moore starts working his just-another-guy-from-Flint routine. Well, golly: What goes on in those countries that have socialized medicine such as Canada, the United Kingdom, and France? Is it any better? Why, yes, it is. And while you can expect everybody from HMOs to the American Medical Association to comb through Moore's argument with much more rigorous data and reports--Moore is more entertainer than reporter, and he does choose examples that best suit his endeavor--it's hard to argue with facts. The World Health Organization ranks France's health care as the best in the world for a reason. And in all the countries Moore visits to talk to doctors, patients, administrators, and even American expatriates, life expectancy, infant mortality rate, and expenditures on health care as percentage of GDP are better in Canada (78 male/83 female; six deaths per 1,000 births under 5; 9.8 percent), France (77/84; five per 1,000; 10.5 percent), and the United Kingdom (77/81; six per 1,000; 8.1 percent) than they are in the U.S. (75/80; eight per 1,000; 15.4 percent). It's hard to argue with the fact that, according to WHO, the poorest Britains are healthier than the richest Americans.
Sicko's arguments are so upsetting that when the inevitable Michael Moore moment arrives--in this case, taking boatfuls of Americans, including a few Sept. 11 volunteers suffering from ailments contracted at ground zero, to Cuba so that they can get the same health care being provided to prisoners at Guantanamo Bay--you don't care about the contrived, grandstanding manipulation as much as you're appalled that it's come to this. Especially for the three Sept. 11 volunteers.
Purposely twisting the adage that you can judge a country by how it treats its worst-off into judging the country by how it treats its best, Moore takes three New York-area fire department and EMT volunteers suffering from ground zero-related ailments and who have been denied coverage to a Cuban hospital, where they are admitted and treated and purchase medications for much, much less than they cost in the States. And Moore wisely doesn't editorialize too much with what his camera captures: He knows well enough that it doesn't matter who the audience members voted for or if they live in a blue or red state or if they're pro-gun control or not. Only one word springs to an American mind when watching these scenes: unacceptable.
That's exactly the moral indignation that powers Bruce Willis' movie nonheroes. Anti-hero is too established an idea, since Willis' guys are never exceptional in any way. From The Last Boy Scout through 16 Blocks, Willis' screen men are ordinary Joes who get transformed, and not because they're looking for redemption. Die Hard's John McClane is the platonic ideal of such a triumphant loser. The estranged husband and father is just a working man, a fairly average New York detective who finds himself in ludicrous situations--think Ralph Kramden with a gun and a badge.
For Live Free or Die Hard--which is, for the record, positively entertaining--director Len Wiseman (the Underworld series) enthusiastically adheres to the series formula while updating its almost constant mayhem action. As Fourth of July weekend approaches, some technologically savvy consortium of sleekly attired baddies has tapped into America's computer hacking underground to solicit strings of security breaching codes--and then proceeds to execute the hackers. One of those is Matt Farrell (Justin Long), whom the FBI asks NYPD to pick up and chaperone to Washington. McClane--busy spying on his daughter making out with some blockhead--gets tapped to do such grunt work, arriving at Farrell's Camden, N.J., apartment just before the baddies arrive and start shooting and blowing the place to bits.
Wiseman has this formula down pat. For Free's entire 130 minutes McClane and his reluctant partner dodge helicopter fire, wave after wave of armed henchmen, a kung fu-savvy female baddie (Maggie Q), and foreign-speaking mercenaries hired by the head psycho in charge. Their end game: steal the country's entire financial data. Their strategy: take over the country's entire electronic and communications infrastructure and bring everything to a sudden halt. And for most of the briskly paced movie, they do one hell of a job of it.
The Die Hard series devilishly chooses its villains well. From Alan Rickman's Hans Gruber to Jeremy Irons' Simon Gruber, these villains are well-educated, culturally refined, worldly, technologically savvy, and persistently intelligent. Of course, McClane defeats these nemeses with scrappy, good old American stick-to-it-iveness: Time to stop the terrorists. Live Free's Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant, game as ever) also fits the mold, a former Department of Defense computer expert turned rogue wing nut. You can tell he's pure evil by the fact that he spends two days terrorizing the country in a fitted black shirt that never wrinkles and says such evil mastermind things as "prep the video package" and "launch the downloads." Obviously, the man is asking to have his ass kicked.
And so, once again, American everydude John McClane has to foil the nefarious plots of some educated sophisto. It's just one of the many classic conflicts Live Free throws upon the screen: Father vs. daughter's boyfriend, automobile vs. helicopter, city worker vs. federal government, semi truck vs. military fighter jet, low-tech vs. nanotechnology, and American vs. Frenchman. Keeping true to the Die Hard format, Gabriel's Alexander Godunov-ian go-to muscle is Rand, played by athletic French stunt man/kung fu star Cyril Raffaelli (Kiss of the Dragon, Banlieue 13). Raffaelli is one of those martial-arts guys who can fling himself through windows and safely leap from an exploding helicopter. He's young and quick and more hand-to-hand fighting gifted than McClane, but just guess who is gonna have the last quip? And who wants to bet that when McClane finally offs Rand--in one the most egregiously violent deaths in the movie--that some audience members won't be clapping? Take that, Frenchie.
That Sicko and Live Free or Die Hard open within two days of each other is one of those gloriously happy coincidences that make culture critics leave wet spots on their reclining theater seat. One of the most personal, convincing, and persuasive arguments for why we need to change our for-profit health-care system arrives in theaters the same week as a big-budget, mass-market entertainment reminder of just why we never will. If we do vote with our pocketbooks, perhaps weekend box-office returns will say what people care about most--doing something about health care or kicking the shit out of those who wish to do us harm. Either way, distributors Twentieth Century Fox and the Weinstein Co. are going to be very happy. God bless America.