|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 16 July 2002|
There are times when you can be 100% behind a movie’s message and still shake your head at its methodology. “John Q” is one of those instances. The sentiments of director Nick Cassavetes and writer James Kearns could hardly be more laudable – they are outraged at the state of health care in the United States, and the overall situation they prevent is all too plausible. Furthermore, agitprop has a long and noble history in literature, drama and film. The trouble is, the way they put together a real-life problem and a fictional response comes off as increasingly unlikely.
John Quincy Archibald (Denzel Washington) is a working man with a loving wife (Kimberly Elise), a great little boy, Michael, and lousy luck. His hours at the factory have been cut in half and he’s so far not found a second job. Then Michael collapses during a baseball game and it turns out that the child needs a heart transplant – which is not covered by John’s HMO from work (which was altered, without his knowledge, when his hours were cut back). The hospital will not perform the operation, which is considered “elective,” without being paid to do so. Moreover, they will not even put Michael’s name on the list of potential heart recipients without a down payment of $70,000, which John doesn’t have.
So far, so tragically realistic – we can feel our blood rising along with John’s as he is turned down everywhere he goes for help. When the hospital insists that Michael must be discharged (to die at home), John takes the drastic step of taking the hospital hostage.
And here is the first (but not last) place “John Q” gets seriously questionable. John’s demand is not that Michael receive a transplant, but rather that the boy be placed on the list. We are asked to take seriously a situation in which a man, who is not meant to be mentally challenged, incurs the attentions of hostage negotiators and a SWAT team with a demand that can be easily lied about.
On the other end of this credibility spectrum is the fact that it takes the authorities forever to consider the notion of lying about it. Then John comes up with an even more drastic idea and if one isn’t already onboard with the drama – or even if one is but is open to reservations – plausibility goes into a tailspin.
One conundrum in “John Q” is that it is extremely literal-minded about everything to do with the atrocious way in which other-than-wealthy people are often treated when it comes to health care in the U.S., while suspending disbelief to the snapping point on other fronts. While it’s possible that a cardiac surgeon would consent to operate under unconventional conditions, for instance, it’s hardly likely that he’d leave himself open to the kind of criminal charges that would almost certainly ensue from this particular scenario – again, if it was handled with the kind of clinical detail that marks the examination of bureaucracy but nothing else here.
On the audio commentary track, the filmmakers repeatedly comment on the enthusiastic response “John Q” got from theatrical audiences. It is possible that the film plays better to a crowd than on home theatre, where – barring the star wattage of Washington, James Woods as the heart surgeon on the scene and Robert Duvall as a hostage negotiator – it feels something like a movie of the week.
The picture quality is very clean and clear, though there aren’t that many striking compositions. There’s a nicely realistic heart transplant sequence in Chapter 37 (a featurette that can be either accessed from the fact track while the film is in progress or seen separately shows how the special effects were achieved). Sound is fine throughout, with some very convincing helicopter surround sounds in Chapters 17 and 25, a startling gunshot and shattering of glass in Chapter 28 and very enveloping crowd noises in Chapter 30. Chapter 29 has some very pretty if sentimental orchestrations on the score by Aaron Zigman.
The Infinifilm format allows us to either check out various featurettes separately or opt to check them out (or not) during the movie’s run. “John Q” also comes with white subtitles that appear superimposed over the image, rather than beneath it, for added information, which is a bit distracting. Along with things we might expect – Washington talking about his role, director Cassavetes talking about Washington and vice-versa (we learn that Cassavetes’ daughter has a heart condition, making the subject of children with cardiac problems of personal concern to the filmmaker) – we can select a featurette that lets us (in the Fact Track’s words) “Hear About the Overwhelming Bureaucracy Involved in Getting a Transplant.” A number of featurettes on the disc have similar slants, and it’s hard to figure out exactly who these extras are aimed at. Information – even propaganda information (the phrase “overwhelming bureaucracy” does not suggest an impartial view) – can be a valuable tool, but people who are faced with getting heart transplants for themselves or loved ones know about the bureaucracy involved, and people who have elected to watch “John Q” rather than a documentary on HMOs are ostensibly looking for a bit of storyline with their facts. Forewarned is forearmed, perhaps, and there is no requirement that someone watching the DVD check out all the supplements, but this is perhaps an odd choice – somehow, battling paperwork doesn’t quite seem on a par with the Infinifilm track on, say, “13 Days,” which had footage of real spy planes and Russian diplomats talking about their personal recollection of the Cuban missile crisis.
Washington gives a very sincere and moving performance, Woods and Duvall are reliably on the money and Anne Heche is memorable as a hospital administrator so completely unwilling to engage in other people’s problems that she has the feeling of familiarity – everybody has encountered someone like this, sometimes on life and death issues. She makes us believe that John would feel that extreme measures are his only recourse. Unfortunately, the movie can’t make us believe that events would unfold as they do here.