I’ve seen two powerful documentaries over the past week: Michael Moore’s new film Sicko, and the lesser-known Manufactured Landscapes. Both films are intensely political, but the contrast in their approach is striking.
Moore, as usual, is on a crusade. The healthcare system in the U.S. is broken, and we get to see many of the shattered pieces, up close and very personal. To our national shame, we also get to see what a great job the Canadians, Brits, French, and even Cubans are doing.
As with most of Moore’s films, his agenda is obvious and immediate. We are presented with a mountain of evidence—some quantitative, much anecdotal—as to why some form of socialized healthcare would be better than what we have now. No dissenting views are presented, and Moore pretty much tells us what to think. And I find myself agreeing with much of what he says. (For example, when was the last time you heard anyone complain about socialized fire departments?)
However, I think he’d greatly increase his credibility if he interviewed at least one Canadian who has some complaints about their system, one Brit who fell through the cracks, one French person who thinks the taxes that pay for their system are too high. We shouldn’t expect any system to be perfect—just way way better than one that creates financial incentives to deny care to those who most need it. But instead we have interviews with Che Guevara’s daughter, extolling Cuba’s virtues. I’m sorry, but I do not think this is an effective strategy for convincing doubtful Americans that government-funded healthcare is the way to go. But as with Moore’s other films, there’s plenty of entertaining red meat for his left-leaning fans.
Contrast Moore’s approach with that of director Jennifer Baichwal, whose Manufactured Landscapes, takes us to scenes of intense environmental and social devastation caused by unrestrained economic development—and simply shows them to us. Monochromatic Chinese factories, grounded oil tankers being scrapped in Bangladesh, the vast scars of open mines. Enough context is provided to explain what you’re seeing, but the relative lack of narration is as refreshing as the scenes are stunning. The film chronicles the work of Edward Burtynsky, whose large-format still photographs capture these transformed landscapes in all of their horrible beauty. One leaves the theater in a meditative state, contemplating the origins of one’s possessions, rather than chattering about the relative merits of HMOs versus state-run healthcare.
I’m not sure it’s necessary to debate which approach is better. One states its bias clearly, rather than pretending to be fair and balanced, energizing activists and alienating opponents. The more subtle approach lacks the rabble-rousing populism that Moore employs, but at the same time might be an easier film to convince your nature-loving conservative cousin to see.
Ryan Rodrick Beiler is the web editor for Sojourners/Call to Renewal.