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‘Article 99’

By Desson Howe
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
Under 17 restricted

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There's something awfully familiar about "Article 99." Let's see: A group of Veterans Administration hospital doctors, including Ray Liotta, Forest Whitaker and John C. McGinley, have to treat an assembly line of war wounded. Their efforts are hamstrung by meager supplies, deplorable conditions, incompetent superiors and bureaucratic red tape. They trade quips as they operate. They give each other high fives as they make "midnight requisitions" -- the filching of medical supplies for needy patients. They even stow away not-ready-for-discharge patients in the hospital basement.

Yup, it's "M*A*S*H" all right. Liotta and company fill in for Hawkeye and company, while hissable hospital director John Mahoney and chief surgeon Jeffrey Tambor do the honors for Maj. Frank Burns. Somewhere in all this there's a painful essence about the plight of the veteran and the horrors of the system. But it's lost in the zany antics. The result is an unsatisfying mix of primetime cuteness and real-life pain. Perhaps they shouldn't have given the director's job to Howard Deutch. He did "Pretty in Pink."

The movie's title refers to a fictitious VA regulation (an obvious spin on "Catch-22") that allows medical benefits for veterans but frequently disqualifies them because "their diagnosed condition cannot be specifically related to military service." So when new doctor Kiefer Sutherland and new resident psychiatrist Kathy Baker enter this VA facility, they get an absurdist education not covered in the medical books.

Their teacher is Liotta, unofficial head of the renegade doctors and the only hope for this blighted hospital. For his moral efforts, he stands to be dumped at any moment by Mahoney. Sutherland, a wet-behind-the-big-ears " 'tern," has to gain respect from his battle-scarred associates (including his romantic interest, doctor Lea Thompson), who assume he's bound for cushy, private practice. After chumming up with dying veteran Eli Wallach and witnessing Mahoney's real agenda, he sees the lie of the land. Meanwhile, Baker gets more than just pointers from Liotta.

"Article 99" may swing at the right targets -- the Washington bureaucracy and its betrayal of the very soldiers that fought for its interests. But it undoes every social posture it takes with formulaic pablum. The finale, involving the tiresomely usual roundup of SWAT teams, bullhorns and police cars, is a case in point. Instead of coming up with a thoughtful resolution about a tangled and ongoing problem, the filmmakers go for "Die Hard."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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