The American Health Care System Is in “Critical Care” and Has Been For a While

Now Showing on The Greene Screene: Into the Spaderverse #31, Critical Care (1997, Sidney Lumet)

“I don’t believe in God anymore.”

“Do you want some ice chips?”

It didn’t take long before Critical Care shocked my system. Witnessing James Spader’s disillusioned, oversexed Dr. Ernst transform into a devilish Wallace Shawn (!) will do that. Indeed, I nearly ran around my living room in celebration. What stopped me was the weighty context: this transformation came from the POV of Spader’s dying patient (Jeffrey Wright).

Known only to the audience by the location where he will die, Wright’s “Bed Two” is someone who the system has failed repeatedly. It’s no wonder he sees the medical system for what it truly is: a capitalist enterprise, a tenet of an imbalanced service economy. It’s no wonder he wants to die. Every scene with Wright I saw my friend, who was tired of fighting this past April. I thought of all others that have been taught their worth by the system and believed the lie.

Sidney Lumet’s film is a morality play exploring the tainted soul of our country. It’s an excoriation of a medical system that only feels closer to the brink in the midst of our selfish, never-ending pandemic. Patients with insurance are left on life support for as long as possible and those without it are hot potatoes hospitals don’t want to get stuck with. Everyone’s worried about their own ass, about potential lawsuits. Poindexter, a doctor known for never letting anyone die, boasts how patients have become mere statistics. There’s no such thing as a terminal illness anymore because machines can keep anyone “technically” alive for as long as the insurance checks can be cashed. That’s what the incredibly named Dr. Butz (Albert Brooks, a revelation in Rick Baker makeup) solely concerns himself with and seeks to school Spader in — the sordid business of Critical Care.

It’s Stella (Helen Mirren) and the rest of the overworked nurse staff doing all the work around the hospital, maneuvering in between bureaucracy and egos. Stella has a 365-day calendar that presents a new, fresh holiday every day, a feeble attempt to bring levity to a thankless job she pursued after surviving her own battle with breast cancer.

All this IS heavy, but the way it’s delivered — staged like a very special episode of Grey’s Anatomy, a melodramatic stage play — is the only reason it works. A spoonful of off-kilter, weird and funny helps make this medicine go down.

Spader’s Dr. Ernst finds himself in the middle of a feud between two polar opposite half-sisters: a religious nut played by the great Margo Martindale versus femme fatale Felicia (the best I’ve ever seen Kyra Sedgwick), warring over how Ernst should treat their vegetative father.

In all honesty, I didn’t “get” Kyra Sedgwick until this movie, when she amps up the manipulation and gets James Spader right where she wants him. That the only way to get a doctor’s honest opinion about her comatose father is through sex is just another indictment of this world. As Felicia says, “When the dingus gets hard, your brain gets soft.”

Spader, the CIS straight white dingus the system has been designed for, is forced to make a decision about what kind of doctor/man he wants to be. It’s a decision I face every day, and every day, I know I’m not doing enough. Suffering is supposed to teach us how to love one another. Instead we’re so consumed with avoiding our own suffering that we must ignore what’s outside our window.

Critical Care is available to rent or buy wherever one does such a thing these days.

--

--

Writer, director. Creator of The Naked Man Podcast. Human sampler tray following breadcrumbs, forever hungry. @WanderingGreene on IG, Letterboxd & Twitter

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Andrew Greene

Writer, director. Creator of The Naked Man Podcast. Human sampler tray following breadcrumbs, forever hungry. @WanderingGreene on IG, Letterboxd & Twitter