by LUKE BAUMGARTEN & r & & r & Sicko & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & B & lt;/span & y the time Michael Moore gets three volunteers from the cleanup of the World Trade Center bombing site on a fishing boat barreling toward Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, demanding they be given the same medical care the Marines are giving to the bombing suspects, it feels about right. Having spent an hour and a half tuning the absurdity of healthcare in America to an ear-splitting pitch, Moore relieves the pressure by picking up his bullhorn. These people, he says -- with their wrecked lungs, ground-down teeth and health-claim denials -- have come to Guantanamo for the state-of-the-art medical facilities built to keep terror suspects healthy. "They don't want any more [treatment] than we're giving the evildoers," he says before a siren sounds and the group beats a hasty retreat.

It's funny, and not in that cloying "ain't I a stinker?" way that Moore usually trolls for laughs. It's a more bitter, more effective set piece than Moore has offered in ages. We treat the remaining 9/11 hijackers better than we treat the people that dug half-alive victims out of the smoldering debris fields. Having been shown how deeply, tragically -- perhaps irrevocably -- broken our system is, we laugh, searching for any release valve.

Moore has achieved this by paying close attention to pacing, organization and thematic juxtaposition. That, and keeping his smug, self-satisfied Everyman grin off camera for much of the film. Indeed, we don't see the unshaven slab of his face until almost an hour in. He instead treats us to a series of side-by-sides, statistics and anecdotal stories about hard-working people denied life-saving coverage -- and of their foreign counterparts, living with free, state-offered coverage. He pits our system vs. the Canadian system. Then the British. Then the French. By the time our system compares unfavorably to Gitmo, and then -- in some respects -- to third-world arch-nemesis Cuba, we're begging for a little of Moore's narcissistic candid camera shtick.

Unlike most people in my particular socio-economic milieu, I'm no great fan of Michael Moore. I actually kinda hate the guy. His previous films, all of them tackling important topics, were tirades that affected a populist bent but were better at preaching to the cult of Moore than rousing the populace to action. They infuriate me. Sicko is not that kind of film, but it'll probably suffer the same fate -- Moore's legacy and persona ringing in the ears of his detractors, deafening those that, by dint of numbers, could effect the most change. That's a shame.

It's endearing though, to see Moore try to duck the limelight. I wonder if he realizes he's been hogging it so long that his shlubby, frumpy, unhealthy-looking frame is permanently etched on our collective consciousness.

Moore always has his stats down and his spin and his fakey-sounding sincerity and his sledgehammer sense of irony. Sicko succeeds not because of these things, but because of the way he puts the formula (parts of it anyway) aside long enough to hone in on the problem and a number of possible solutions. More like a documentarian, then, than a demagogue.

Sicko is Moore's quietest film. And his best. (Rated PG-13)

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