/ 7 March 2008

The green and the red

It’s almost as though the two movies of this week — Sicko and There Will Be Blood — could have switched titles. Michael Moore’s polemical documentary about the failure of health insurance in the United States could well be called There Will Be Blood, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic about a megalomaniacal oilman could easily be named Sicko.

Apart from that, and the disillusioned attitude towards a society driven by money, the resemblance between the two films ends there. Sicko is a work in Moore’s individualistic issue-grabbing style, with himself as provocateur-in-chief, and There Will Be Blood is a long, exhaustive portrait of a monstrous character that is often as monomaniacal as he is.

In Sicko, Moore looks into the American health-insurance system, investigating it through the experiences of various individuals, especially some who helped out after 9/11 but weren’t cops or firemen so weren’t covered by state-paid medical insurance. If South Africans caught between the rock of state hospitals and the hard place of expensive private medical aids thought they were in a difficult position, take a look at Sicko. The US is clearly not a place to get ill; even if you’re covered to the hilt, the insurers will do their best not to pay. It’s not withholding treatment, they argue, just withholding payment. Except that, given the enormous expense of medical treatment in the US, it often comes to the same thing. A doctor who worked for one of the health-insurance companies talks about how, instead of seeing to it that patients got care, she was basically rewarded for keeping their pay-outs to a minimum.

Moore reveals the history of the health-insurance system in a pact with Richard Nixon, hardly the most caring president ever, and in a depressingly hilarious segment shows how the insurance giants paid Ronald Reagan (then still a mere actor) to record a propagandistic LP telling Americans why state healthcare was the first step on the slippery slope towards godless communism and the Orwellian control of private lives. According to him, the gulags were just a step away. No wonder Reagan was rewarded so generously, years later, with massive corporate support for his presidency, and so he got more time to rant against the Reds. The greenback always wins.

To offset the claim that state healthcare is a form of communist dictatorship, Moore takes a few overseas trips. He listens with his own special brand of faux-naïvété as British, French and Canadian citizens talk about their state-sponsored healthcare systems. ‘You mean it’s all free?” moans Moore as they explain how the state covers everything, and, as one British state-employed doctor recounts, that doesn’t even mean he can’t live in comfort and drive a decent car. Although, as he says, maybe if you want four or five such cars —

Moore’s set-piece is a trip to Guantánamo Bay, where captives of the ‘war on terror” are allegedly receiving the best medical treatment money can buy (presumably soon after receiving the best torture money can buy). Taking with him the heroes of 9/11 who can’t get treatment for their lung and other ailments, he heads for Cuba and gets a motorboat to the edge of the Guantánamo defences. He yells through a megaphone, with, one hopes, a little irony: ‘We just want the same as what the evildoers are getting!”

Naturally that won’t wash, but luckily nearby Cuba can help, and this leads to some moving moments in the movie. It made me think of the doctors Cuba kindly sent to South Africa some time ago, and how nice it would be to have a public healthcare system like theirs. Certainly we don’t want one like that of the US. We may be heading down that road, though. I’m not sure I want to be on a medical aid that is listed on the stock exchange, which means profits and shareholders are more important than I am. But, as a good bourgeois, I can’t see many options. The alternative is a state hospital, and I can never get much sleep on a piece of cardboard on the floor.

There Will Be Blood is at least fictional. It is based on Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil!, making it to the screen 80 years later. Anderson did his own adaptation, and it was to be hoped that after the diversion of Punch Drunk Love, the offbeat and not entirely successful love story with Adam Sandler, Anderson would be getting back to the brilliant panoramas of his Boogie Nights and Magnolia. There Will Be Blood competes with those epics in terms of length, but it lacks their kaleidoscopic variety.

At the critics’ screening at Ster-Kinekor a while ago, the power failed eight minutes before the end of There Will Be Blood. The projectionist apologised and said not to worry, the film would be screened for us again. No, no, we all cried — not all of it! Just the last eight minutes, please.

Daniel Day Lewis undoubtedly gives a barnstorming performance as Daniel Plainview, the ruthless oilman who works and finagles his way to millions, destroying any number of people on the way, and the actor was duly rewarded at the Oscars. The film is well made, rich in texture and detail, but it’s as though Day Lewis/Plainview takes up all the available space in the movie and sucks the life out of the subsidiary characters. They sort of shrivel in contrast to the sheer enormity of Plainview as a character, so dominant is he. Perhaps that’s the point: no one can withstand him. But it leaches some life from the drama.

The Day Lewis performance is thus, paradoxically, both the strength and the weakness of There Will Be Blood. It’s not exactly a one-note movie; it’s a two-note movie. And that’s not quite enough to sustain its length.