One way to measure a movie’s success is by who it offends. And as it turns out John Q., a cheesy Denzel Washington vehicle about a man who remedies a surprise medical bill with a gun, didn’t particularly impress reviewers or healthcare officials when it was released 2002. Hospital administrators called it a “one-sided caricature of healthcare” and a work of “pure Hollywood.” The Baltimore Sun took issue with the “demonizing of the managerial class (and the idolizing of the working class)” expressed by the script. Dr. Oz, who had consulted on the production, appeared in the New York Times post-release to note he was actually somewhat offended by the film’s caricatures of cold-hearted hospital staffers more concerned with purse strings than public good: “There is no bad guy in this system,” he said. “Insurers have defensible reasons for what they do.”
John Q. is about as heavy-handed as you might expect a movie to be when its title character is named after a historical shorthand for the common man. The characters—a bad cop, a good cop, an angelic youngster, a dad full of conviction and verve—aren’t so much complex people as foils for an aggressive moral arc. But if you happen to be into movies like Die Hard and think the American insurance reimbursement system is full of shit, it’s an immensely satisfying experience, a big-budget blockbuster toggling between the kind of hostage plot that defined the late ’90s and punchy explanations of the business of kickbacks and premiums. As I’m sure this must have been pitched at one point in some Hollywood conference room: just imagine Speed, but if the extortionist strapped with a bomb was the medical system at large.
Washington plays a stoic father working in a Chicago factory, struggling to get enough hours to take care of his family. Around the time he’s officially classified as a part-time employee, his young son manifests a rare heart defect requiring an expensive transplant. The first half of the movie is more or less a montage of Washington laughing in disbelief as he insists, “But I have insurance!” to various hospital staff and HR representatives. (But you see, they explain to him, you’ve been classified as part-time, we’ve recently switched to an HMO, surgery is expensive and you absolutely have to come up with at least $75,000.)
In the second act, having failed to sell enough of his belongings to put his son on a transplant waiting list, and having watched his son’s surgeon pal around with an elderly heart transplant recipient with whom he plays golf, John Q busts into the hospital’s ER with a gun. Predictably, the hostages he takes—much like the people who come to follow John’s story in the news—are more inclined to side with a grieving everyman than the hospital system insisting he pay up. And fortuitously, they happen to include a disillusioned nurse who can explain how John Q’s provider probably didn’t provide his son adequate care because he was getting a fat end-of-year bonus from the insurance company in exchange for keeping costs down—as well as the comedian Eddie Griffin, who says things like, “More like the hypocritical oath!”
Obviously, and I don’t imagine this is much of a spoiler, John turns out to be better served by breaking a number of laws and menacing his son’s surgeon than he was pleading with officials under fluorescent hospital lights—a resolution that appeared to spook some of the doctors who spoke to the press after the movie hit theaters. As a UCLA head of heart and lung transplants was quick to remind readers of the Los Angeles Times, should they be tempted to get carried away, there were actually always reasonable solutions for unexpected medical bills. A person just needed to complete the proper paperwork and also have a clairvoyant sense of whether they will befall a massive and unexpected tragedy several years in advance.
“John Q. could have gone to the company and said, ‘I don’t like this policy. I want to spend $100 more and get better insurance,” he said. “If he’s willing to go shoot people to save his son, why can’t he pay a little extra a month to make sure he’s covered?” There are absolutely plot holes in John Q.—an imperfect but wildly entertaining movie—but I have to say that isn’t one.