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‘Article 99’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 13, 1992


Howard Deutch
Ray Liotta;
Kiefer Sutherland;
Forest Whitaker;
John C. McGinley;
Lea Thompson;
John Mahoney;
Kathy Baker;
Eli Wallach

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With everyone on the campaign trail running against Washington, it only makes sense that a movie would jump on the bandwagon. Set in a Veterans Affairs hospital where the jungle of red tape is more treacherous than the North Vietnamese bush, "Article 99" throws its hat in the ring against a stifling bureaucracy that makes the actual practice of medicine nearly impossible. It's about the lack of humanity in our human service administrations: a modern horror story about patients -- the brave soldiers who fought our wars -- who can't get coverage, and doctors who are so crippled by budget cuts that the scalpels have literally been taken out of their hands.

The VA hospital here is a war zone, booby-trapped with Byzantine regulations, lost records and mountains of paperwork. As Dr. Morgan (Kiefer Sutherland) soon discovers, nothing there works as it should. Morgan is the newest member of the staff, and on his first visit to the operating room, he is shocked to see that a patient scheduled for prostate surgery is having his chest opened for a bypass. Why? Article 99, a cost-cutting administrative loophole that states that a vet is eligible for treatment only for injuries incurred in actual service. Faced with these insurmountable obstacles, the staff has taken matters into its own hands. Led by Dr. Sturgess (Ray Liotta), they are guerrilla surgeons, Hippocratic anarchists performing unauthorized operations, hiding patients in laundry rooms and staging midnight raids on medical supplies.

Sturgess and his band of renegades -- played by Forest Whitaker, Lea Thompson and John C. McGinley -- are the last in the long line of pseudo-revolutionary lunatics that dates back at least as far as "Catch 22" and "M*A*S*H." And that's precisely what director Howard Deutch would most like "Article 99" to be -- a "M*A*S*H" for the '90s. But though it borrows attitudes from those earlier films (and, in Sutherland's case, even samples from the same gene pool), the picture isn't anywhere near the same class.

The movie has its message -- that the state of health care in this country, particularly health care for veterans, is atrocious -- and there's even some indication that its indictment of the system is sincere. At the same time, its characters are too one-dimensional, and their dilemmas too broadly drawn, to be involving. The film's villain is the hospital's chief administrator (John Mahoney), who's meant to represent callous governmental bean-counters everywhere. And the principal drama is whether Morgan, who has a bright future down the line in private practice, is willing to risk his career by siding with Sturgess and his merry men against this contemporary Simon Legree.

Which is another way of saying that there is no drama at all. Unlike the doctors in "M*A*S*H," who kept their heads by losing them, and who at least got some joy (and gave some) by breaking the rules, these healers are heroes who have to go against orders if they are to serve mankind and live up to their noble calling. They rebel by being on the right side of the issue -- that is, by being morally and politically correct. And by cheering them on as they take over the hospital, with disabled veterans chained together by the entrance as their first line of defense, we get to feel morally and politically superior too.

It's an old formula and a tired one; too tired, unfortunately, for the actors to rise above. It might serve as a worthwhile case study on the state of the movies to compare Kiefer Sutherland in "Article 99" with his father in "M*A*S*H" -- that is, if there were any real comparison. Liotta, at least, has some authority, particularly in his scenes with Kathy Baker, who plays a staff psychiatrist. When these actors are at work, they manage to give gravity to scenes that don't really have any. (As Luther, the vet who acts as the hospital's unofficial commander in chief, Keith David has some of the same natural authenticity.) Sutherland, on the other hand, manages somehow to make every film look as if it were his first. He's the perpetual rookie.

"Article 99" is rated R for language.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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