Two momentous films open nationwide on the same day. Sicko radically challenges our perspective on health care. Ratatouille radically challenges our perspective on rats in kitchens. Cynics will say there's a better chance of a rodent becoming a chef than of universal health care for Americans. That underestimates the big fighting rat at the center of Sicko.
Michael Moore can be a blowhard. But he's also an angry court jester speaking truth to power. When the counterculture imploded in the late '70s, the Right appropriated its prankster spirit: Speaking truth to power became razzing "feminazis" and the so-called liberal media. Moore has reclaimed progressives' gonzo legacy.
Sicko is his best film: It mixes outrage, hope and stunts in perfect proportions. Iraq-war partisans could stonewall in the face of Fahrenheit 9/11, but Sicko will whack everyone in the kidneys with a large stick.
You could find millions of anecdotes of insurers denying payment — but Moore comes up with doozies. Some are ghoulishly amusing, like the guy with two fingers cut off who didn't have coverage to get both re-attached. He had to choose between the ring finger for 12 grand and the middle finger for 60 grand. Figuratively speaking, Moore gives the insurance company the middle finger.
Other stories are tragic: People whose insurers deny their claims expire before the appeals process runs its course, leaving stricken spouses and children.
It's the HMO Kaiser Permanente, though, that emerges as a super-villain, if only because of an astounding 1971 tape of an Oval Office meeting between John Ehrlichman and Richard Nixon. Nixon is convinced to go along with Edgar Kaiser's scheme to create a for-profit managed-care system on the grounds that hospitals would have incentives to give less care.
Material this potent doesn't need angry emphasis. Instead, Moore's persona is sorrowful: sympathy for the neglected, mock-incredulousness over why this has to be. The second half is a travelogue: He journeys to Canada, the U.K. and France to see how people bear up under national health care. Perhaps he paints a rosy picture, and a survey of Cuban health care leaves out less-savory details of life under Castro. But the differences in coverage between our system and other countries' is profound.
Moore argues that Americans take dead-end jobs for insurance and stay because employers have them over a barrel. He says transform health care, and you'll remake society. History suggests the health-care industry will pay through the nose to ensure that the system never changes. But after Sicko, how can Americans let politicians feed them sugar pills?
Brad Bird's Ratatouille is a high-water mark for its director, too. Because Bird's previous features are The Iron Giant and The Incredibles, that's higher than the Eiffel Tower. Our Parisian rat hero, Remy, does not share his family's taste for garbage. He loves fresh ingredients combined in unexpected ways. It's an archetypal story: a youth who insists on going his own way in the face of a disapproving dad and a society that sees him in but one role. What makes it less sentimental is the visceral incongruity of its happiest image: a rat on a stovetop improvising over a soup pot. You think "yuck" and "yum" at the same instant. Bird charges the space the way Spielberg does: His animated characters seize the foreground, making you sit up like a rat catching a whiff of cheese — maybe tomme de Savoie shaved lightly over truffle-scented petit pois. Can Brad Bird cook!
The week's other blockbuster is the third Die Hard sequel, Live Free or Die Hard. Bruce Willis returns with his head shaved — he no longer seems like detective John McLane, just Bruce Willis with his all-purpose smirk. The movie combines brutal action with high-tech cyberthrills and the pacing of TV's 24. It's watchable, but the strands don't coalesce; the climax is by-the-numbers. The best reason to see it is the young actor Justin Long, of the TV series Ed and those Mac-vs.-PC commercials. He plays an ace hacker, and the tension between his shambling gait and his lightning way with a keyboard — and with geek banter — leaves Bruce eating his dust. Willis does get entertainingly bashed-up, though. Let's hope the NYPD has a decent insurance plan.