Movie Reviews

Movie Review: John Q – The Sorry State of Health Care in This Country

Written by James Kearns
Directed by Nick Cassavetes

I remember I accidentally received this movie in error back in the days when Netflix mailed you discs. I had no intention of watching it at the time, but what the heck, I’d watch it before sending it back. That is one of the best errors I can ever remember happening.

Denzel Washington portrays a typical middle-class blue-collar worker. I say typical because he reminds me a great deal of my husband’s best friend who works at the Mrs. T’s Pierogies plant to support his kids (he’s now divorced). We watched him go through the divorce and losing his job that he’d had for more than 10 years. He’s used to a lot better than this job he has now, but it pays. Many of us don’t have to think too hard to come up with someone we know similar to the Archibald’s; people who live on the fringes and are just about getting by. However the moment a catastrophic illness or injury hits their family, they will be plunged into an abyss from which it is nearly impossible to escape.

In any case, Denzel’s John Q is just about making ends meet – but not quite. His wife’s car is repossessed because he chose to make the rental payment on their house rather than the car payment. For that, his wife (portrayed by Kimberly Elise) blames him. If there’s one character that got on my nerves here, it’s the wife, Denise. She seems to want her husband to make money appear where there is none and blames him for everything that goes wrong throughout the film.

In some way, I am sure she blames him for their son’s health problems as well. The problems only surface when young Mike collapses during his Little League game. A trip to the hospital reveals that he is in desperate need of a heart transplant.

The only problem is that John’s hours at work were recently cut leading to a decrease in health insurance coverage. The hospital administrator (portrayed with magnificent detachment by Anne Heche) puts him in as a cash patient, meaning the hospital requires $75,000 before they will even put his name on the donor list.

There are a few “real world” inconsistencies going on. I went through losing my job and having my health insurance changed. The company I worked for failed to send out notices to those laid-off and was forced to carry us on health insurance for 90 days while the remaining employees were transferred to the new plan. The law requires that a company notify you in writing and give you 30 days to decide if you want to pay for COBRA coverage and continue at the same level. Since the company (for us) waited almost 2 months before sending out the notices, they were forced to keep a bunch of us covered under the old plan until the time period expired.

Why John did not head first to a lawyer to consult on the case is another problem I have as that would have been my next step: suing the pants off of everyone and anyone to get my kid on that transplant list and forcing my company or the health insurance company to pay for it.

That said, this is a movie works as an indictment of the lousy state of health care in this country. There is a distinct line between the “haves” and the “have nots” and it’s not just about insurance. There is a great scene where John confronts his son’s doctor (portrayed by James Woods) as he’s talking to a heart patient about playing golf. It is a subtle distinction that this man obviously has money – and consequently insurance – and a new heart while John’s son languishes and is at the point of being released from the hospital to go home to die.

His solution to the situation – after he has sold everything he owns and only managed to scrape together around $25,000 – and to his wife’s harping that he never does anything and it’s about time he does something, is to get a gun and take the doctor and the people currently inhabiting the Emergency Room of the hospital hostage to get his son on the list.

At this point you have to suspend disbelief because from there what was inherently a pretty good story about the sorry state of heath care in our nation goes from bad to worse. The second part of the movie deals with John’s situation at the hands of an inept police chief worried about his bid for re-election (portrayed by Ray Liotta). The police chief manages to alienate everyone including the detective who was handling the scene up until he came along (portrayed by Robert Duvall). At this point is sinks into a hostage and police drama, and never quite recovers.

I was also disappointed in the ending. I have to wonder if there was speculation at taking it another way – a darker version – at one point and then possibly under pressure from the studio the director and writer chickened out. I think I would have preferred the darker ending.

This film demonstrates the problem of people’s health being served by enterprises which are being run for profit, rather than for the best interest of society as a whole. It curses the “Greed is good” message delivered in the film Wall Street back in the eighties by showing how that greed affects people in human terms. While the executives of health insurance companies reap six-figure bonuses, people are dying in hospitals because loopholes are found to deny treatment.

It is this realization which comes upon the people in the Emergency Room of the hospital where John has taken his hostages. All of them sympathize with him and eventually work with him because they see just how easily it could end up being them on the other end of that gun.

The performances in the film are great. Denzel is fantastic as John. He makes us believe in this man who wants to do the right thing and is trying his best to live an honest life only to be shafted by the system. Daniel E. Smith as his son Mike is natural in the part, much better than some of the other child actors I’ve seen. James Woods was terrific as the cardiac surgeon who was sympathetic to John Q and his family, but really has no feeling for their situation. Anne Heche is incredible as the hospital administrator. Time and again I found myself wondering how this person could live with herself as she essentially plays God stating who will go on lists and who won’t.

This is a movie that people need to see, if only to realize just how marginal many of us are in society. We think we are all taken care of and all set – but John Q demonstrates just how easily all the security we have can evaporate.

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