Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Article 99 (1992)


WHEN YOUR HOSPITAL IS A WAR ZONE, YOU HAVE TO FIGHT TO SAVE LIVES.

Healthcare has long been a touchy subject for most people, but particularly in America. So many people get lost in the miasma of bureaucracy from the insurance companies and hospitals and government health initiatives, it’s hard to find much light in a system that, from certain angles, seems to place more emphasis on cost-reduction than life-saving. One of the many groups that get caught up in all of this is the veterans of America, who were promised lifelong medical care for their sacrifices, but are met with a wall of red tape when they try to claim. In 1992, a film was released that sought address the indignities suffered by those who once fought for their country, but now have to fight against it in order to get health cover.

In a severely underfunded veterans’ hospital, a group of doctors, led by Dr. Sturgess (Ray Liotta), must try to treat too many patients with too little supplies. The main cause of their problems is the bureaucratic belt-tightening by the hospital callous chief administrators. Determined to do their jobs as best they can, with the help of some patients and nurses, they defy the orders of management, stealing supplies and performing unauthorized operations.

As far as Article 99 is concerned, veterans are the ones who, in terms of medical care, get hit hardest. Despite the soldiers being promised free care at army hospitals, there is a system in place that seeks to stop this from happening as much as possible. The title refers to a clause that, although the patient may indeed need medical care, the veterans’ hospitals and the government cannot provide such care since it cannot be proved that the problem was a result of injuries sustained from war. This in itself is enough to angry up the blood of most people. It essentially presupposes that the only health concerns a soldier would ever have, mental or physical, would be those directly attributable to their wartime efforts. It neglects such things as later life heart disease, which is the very complaint our first character has. A decorated veteran, he needs a triple bypass and so heads to the VA to get the paperwork approved so he can get himself fixed up. Unfortunately, he’s met with such an all-consuming bureaucratic nightmare that it has men lined up all over the place to fill in one form to get some more forms to be filled out and taken to the next line to fill in the form to get… good lord, I need a seat. Our man is taken aside by Luther, played by Keith David, the man who knows how rotten the system is and explains the pitfalls to the poor guy, and us. Luther tells him, “the only thing that’s gonna get bypassed is you.” Not two minutes later, another former soldier, diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, having just received an Article 99 letter, pitches his truck through the lobby of the hospital and goes on a rampage through the building with an automatic rifle. With the underpaid security dealing with problems elsewhere, it’s up to the doctors to take him down with a defibrillator.

If they’re lucky enough to actually get into the hospital, they’ll spend their time being “turfed” from one department to the other until the paperwork can be sufficiently fudged that they can get the help they need. Until then, they populate the wards, the corridors, the basement, the laundry room, all fragile men with their dignity long since stripped away by their fight to get some help.

So like I said, the filmmakers have picked themselves a highly emotive and complex subject. Writer Ron Cutler and director Howard Deutch clearly feel like they have something to say about the way things seem to be. Indeed, who wouldn’t? They have also assembled themselves a superb cast, featuring Ray Liotta, Kiefer Sutherland, Forest Whitaker, Lea Thompson, John Mahoney, Eli Wallach, Kathy Baker, Keith David, John C. McGinley. Sutherland himself apparently felt especially passionate about this project, since his maternal grandfather was Tommy Douglas, the guy who started Canada’s own healthcare system, leading him to be voted as the greatest Canadian ever.

Deutch has found the occasional image that lends itself quite nicely to the project. For example, there is a nice bookending image of the inscription on the steps of the VA hospital. When we first see it, it’s upside down; at film’s end, it’s the right way up. Given the focus on those in the military, this would be a clear reflection of the idea that when flying a flag, to fly it upside down is a sign of distress or something wrong. It’s a perfectly elegant way of suggesting the system is broken before even entering the building.

However, the main problem with the film is that, frankly, it treats the subject a little too… light-hearted? I don’t mean to suggest that it makes it seem like it’s all fun and games, but there is an undeniable feeling that some of the people involved are having fun here. Honestly, you know what Article 99 reminds me of? Scrubs. And not just because John C. McGinley’s there, and that his performance as Dr. Cox in Scrubs was likely more than a little influenced by Ray Liotta in this film. It feels a little like a sitcom because there’s no real sense of scale to the problem. It’s not really about healthcare in America, just in this particular hospital. The filmmakers seem to have confused the dramatic conflict of the film’s character with that of the higher subject matter. Perhaps they were afraid to be too much of a downer, so they bumped up the joke count slightly to combat the woes of medical misappropriation. There is something of a tonal schism in Article 99, similar to the kind of episodic trajectory that occurred in …And Justice for All. It wants you to acknowledge that there is something wrong, that the system is broken, but fails to offer up any kind of hope outside of the over-dramatic escapades that only happen in the movies or on TV. Overall, it makes things feel false… disingenuous… wrong. If they had given the film an extra half hour in which to develop characters more, or had a more widespread consideration of the problem, they would have done better. However, the simple fact is that they just weren’t up to the task at hand. This subject matter deserves a more balanced and comprehensive approach to work as a dramatic piece, but it’s all too neatly tied up here. If this really is such a massive problem, it would take a lot more than a relatively brief protest to solve.

Article 99 clearly has an agenda of sorts, but it’s doubtful as to whether or not it actually succeeds in addressing it properly, so it’s difficult to consider it as anything other than a failure. Even removing its aspirations of social change, and despite a couple of decent performances and the occasional nice piece of direction, it simply doesn’t hit any higher than an average episode of TV drama or sitcom. And its ending is something of a mixed message, too.

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