Michael Moore, Sicko, and the Ethics of Documentary

Excerpt from paper introduction:

Michael Moore’s strategies in creating his controversial and unique films bring to mind questions of ethics. I explore questions of ethics by analyzing Michael Moore’s 2007 documentary Sicko, that critiques the American healthcare system. Politics aside, Sicko is unarguably enjoyable to watch due to the humor, perpetual action occurring in almost every scene, and presence of familiar names and places making the content relevant to all Americans. This formula made Michael Moore a great success in documentary cinema, but has also earned him a lot of critics, not only based on his political viewpoints but also based on his blatant disrespect for social customs and people. Although Michael Moore’s process of creating his great films seems to be unethical, I speculate that because his message is so urgent, there is room to move the line from unethical to ethical. By utilizing tragic and real-life personal stories that exist due to American health policy, Michael Moore’s strategies are ethical to film subjects and to the United States. The stories that he includes in Sicko are so tragic and real that his antics of mitigation and interrogation are appreciated.

This clip is an example I use in my paper. A scholar has identified that in this clip, it is unclear if the blame is with the mother or the hospital, and this leads to an ethical question of Moore: Is it ethical to manipulate his audience? I argue that Sicko is not about mother vs. hospital, Sicko is about the failures of the American healthcare system. It is therefore irrelevant whose fault it is, but relevant that a young girl died because of confusion within the system of where she was covered to be treated. In the United States a child should never die because certain locations are unauthorized to treat her. This is unacceptable. Moore is therefore acting ethically in adding this to his film. Because it happened. And if the fault is with the mother in confusing the system, the point is possibly even stronger: A good healthcare system will save a young dying child even if a mother gets the paperwork wrong.

  1. The clip is certainly troubling, but as you suggest, for many reasons.

    What about the ethics of presentation? There so many gaps in the story Moore uses as evidence–pieces of information we must know to pass judgment. How are we to come to logical conclusions based on such a pointed representation of fact?

  2. elysiagr said:

    Watching this clip, I definitely felt the emotional/logical manipulation at work, especially in terms of the setting of the interview. The whole experience was, for me, weirdly reminiscent of watching some of Werner Herzog’s documentaries, which have been pretty harshly critiqued in some circles for the reconstruction/misrepresentation of reality/the filming process. (Basically, the world presented in this clip seemed very much altered and the process of production very much removed). Here, I did ultimately agree with your claim that the manipulation is ethical because its gaps help push forward the “real” issue: the fragmented, dysfunctional state of American health care. While the tactics may be questionable (or at least, well within the vein of other docs that have come under a less than kind lens this semester), the final point does not seem exceptionally skewed.

  3. MP:me said:

    It is amazing how strongly documentary speaks when there are sounds, people, places, that produce feelings so powerfully. When you describe this clip it just doesn’t carry the same weight. What of that I wonder?

  4. When you speak of ethics with regards to this film I pause. Why is his film unethical? Is it an issue with the way he relates his argument, his abrasive, and at times lambasting nature? What do others say on the Moore’s ethics? You have sparked my curiousity!

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