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Laramie Movie Scope: John Q

A thriller with substance

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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October 23, 2002 -- "John Q" is a manipulative thriller, but unlike most such films, it has a worthwhile social policy point to make and some top-notch acting talent to help put the point across.

The film stars Denzel Washington ("Training Day") as John Quincy Archibald (as in John Q. Public) a down-on-his luck factory worker whose son, Mike (played by Daniel E. Smith) has a fatal heart defect. If he doesn't get a heart transplant, he will die. The trouble is, John's health insurance won't cover the roughly $500,000 cost of a heart transplant. When the hospital threatens to send his son home to die because he can't pay for the live-saving operation, a desperate John Q takes the hospital's emergency room staff and patients hostage until his demands are met. His main demand is to put his son put on the national heart transplant list. He isn't asking for a guarantee that his son will get a heart, he just wants his son to have a "fighting chance" to live.

The case for a national health care system is well-made in this movie because the situation facing John Q's family is very similar to desperate health care situations faced by many families in the U.S. In addition to the arguments in the film, the DVD also has a great deal of additional information about the health care system, if you can call it that, in the U.S. The overall slant of the movie and the DVD is against the current health care system and it favors some kind of universal health care right. The DVD talks specifically of a single-payer system. The last serious attempt at this kind of universal health care coverage in the U.S. was effectively scuttled in 1994 by the largest media campaign ever waged to influence a public policy decision. The $50 million campaign included the famous "Harry and Louise" TV advertisements funded by the The Health Insurance Association of America. The issues of health care rationing and lack of choice used as scare tactics in those advertisements have all come to pass. The difference is, it is the insurance companies, not the government, doing the rationing, and more people than ever have no health care insurance.

This is the wacky world of health care in the U.S., the country with the best health care in the world, if you can afford to pay for it. John Q can't afford to pay, even though he and his wife both work, they don't make nearly enough money to pay for the heart transplant operation. When the hospital is about to discharge his son, John Q's wife Denise (Kimberly Elise of "Beloved") yells at him to "do something." He does. His first hostage is his son's doctor, a cardiologist named Dr. Raymond Turner (James Woods of "Any Given Sunday"), he also snares an E.R. doctor, Steve Maguire (Kevin Connolly), and several patients, including Mitch (Shawn Hatosy of "Outside Providence") who beat up his girlfriend and then brought her to the emergency room for treatment, and Lester (Eddie Griffin of "Undercover Brother") a man of quick wit, a sharp tongue and a hand injury.

The Stockholm syndrome sets in quickly as most of the hostages quickly take sides with John Q when they learn of his son's condition, even the hard-hearted Dr. Turner. When the cops move in, they are led by the trigger-happy police chief Monroe (Ray Liotta of "Hannibal"). A professional hostage negotiator, Lieutenant Frank Grimes (Robert Duvall of "A Civil Action") has a pretty good handle on things, but he is pushed aside by Chief Monroe. A TV reporter, Tuck Lampley (Paul Johansson) becomes a major player in the story, after he had earlier turned down a request to help the family. Lampley stirs things up at the hospital and helps rally the public to John Q's side. Another major player in this drama is hospital administrator Rebecca Payne (Anne Heche of "Six Days, Seven Nights"). She is the one who has to make the tough decisions, like which patients live and which are sent home to die. It is a thankless role, but Heche does it well.

The screenplay follows the standard Hollywod formula for this kind of film. There are no real surpises. The acting is good, but not as good as you would expect given this talent-laden cast. This is not Robert Duvall's best work, but the other Academy Award®-winner, Denzel Washington, does just fine, as does Woods, Kimberly Elise and Daniel E. Smith. The supporting performances are also stong. Kevin Connolly's role in the film seems to be mainly the character (Maguire) who talks about the problems with the current medical system, including the practice of "dumping" patients from profit-making hospitals to publicly-owned hospitals which cannot legally turn them away. Maguire's role is a little too obvious and somewhat under-motivated. The story is carefully constructed to produce maximum drama, but it is too clichéd. The film's strong suit is that it confronts a serious public policy problem in a strong, dramatic, well-considered way. This film rates a C+.

The DVD I watched was the "Infinifilm Edition." It has good sound and picture quality and a large package of extras. The viewer can see the film with, or without the extra package of features. With the features switched on, screen prompts appear which allow you to choose alternate versions of selected scenes, either text or featurette presentations on actors, filmmakers, or medical system background information, consisting of interviews with patients, doctors and other medical professionals. There are hours of extras available, including a commentary audio track by by director Nick Cassavetes, screenwriter James Kearns, producer Mark Burg and DP Rogier Stoffers. My only problem with the Infinifilm features is that I would have liked to have seen most of them put in a separate menu where they could be accessed without running through all the chapters of the film to hunt them out. The only features it makes sense to bury within the film are audio commentaries on how particular scenes are filmed, and alternate versions of certain scenes or deleted scenes (inserted where they would have fit into the film's final cut). There are also DVD-ROM features and lots of other extras. The DVD comes in widescreen anamorphic format with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The dual-layered disk comes with Dolby (tm) Digital 5.1, 2.0 and DTS English soundtracks. It is closed-captioned as well. The DVD rates an B.

Click here for links to places to buy this movie in video and/or DVD format, the soundtrack, books, even used videos, games and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2002 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)