The most striking aspect of Extraordinary Measures is its total lack of an aesthetic: There’s not as much as a spark of visual ingenuity or camera trickery. The average scene consists of a camera focused on two people talking, broken up by the occasional shot-reverse shot. Combined with the movie-of-the-week subject matter – it is the story of a parent who must fight through corporate bureaucracy to fund a miracle cure for his children’s horrible disease – and one would be mistaken for thinking that production company CBS Films had sent the wrong reel to theaters. Shouldn’t this be playing Sunday night at 8 p.m. on CBS 9 instead of five times a day at the cineplex?
Without the A-list talent, it probably would be just another movie of the week. Brendan Fraser plays John Crowley, a father desperate to find a cure for a form of muscular dystrophy known as Pompe disease before it claims the life of his youngest son and only daughter, while one-time king of the box office Harrison Ford slips into the role of Dr. Robert Stonehill, a surly, aging doctor whose scientific breakthrough is the closest thing to a cure for Pompe going.
Time is running out for the Crowleys: Those suffering from Pompe (pronounced like the lost Italian city) have a life expectancy that runs under double digits. As the movie opens, John’s daughter is celebrating her 8th birthday; if a cure is to be found, it must be found soon.
Enter Dr. Stonehill, an eccentric working out of the University of Nebraska who may have discovered a cure: An enzyme treatment that will help the bodies of Pompe patients break down sugar and arrest the dangerous inflammation of their organs. But to finish the cure he’s going to need money, and to get money he’s going to need Crowley, an Ivy Leaguer with an M.B.A. and a sense of how business works.
What follows is a moving if somewhat clichéd tale. Moving because it involves sick kids and only monsters with hearts of stone fail to be moved by sick kids (a fact the filmmakers were clearly relying on, having put not all that much thought into the script); clichéd because there’s never much real doubt about what’s going to end up happening.
More interesting than the story itself is its political implications: Extraordinary Measures is, in a way, a relatively spirited defense of the American health care system and its history of producing wonder drugs.
Needless to say, the filmmakers probably had no intention to make a picture that poignantly brings to life the most powerful criticism of health care reform, namely that centralized government action and prescription drug price controls will severely stifle pharmaceutical innovation and condemn countless future millions to suffering and death.
It is easy for supporters of health care reform to make an argument based on emotion – “Health care reform will open access to insurance and save lives; if you weren’t so busy callously ignoring the indigent sick you could see that” – but more difficult for opponents to demonstrate in a quick and easy fashion just why we need the dread evils of private venture capital and the profit motive.
Indeed, it’s unclear whether screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs or director Tom Vaughan realize it either -- anytime mention of profit is made it’s usually through clenched teeth by John. He doesn’t care about profit, after all; he just wants a drug that will save the lives of his babies. Without concern for profit, however, that drug wouldn’t come: Dr. Stonehill would still be toiling away at a backwater public university with a little government money and John’s children would have died.
The political subtext has no bearing on the quality of the film itself, of course; it’s not much more than a well-acted, competently shot little drama that will hit parents hard and maybe even inspire the odd tear or two. But it is an interesting cultural document, especially considering the precarious state of the health care reform debate.
Sonny Bunch writes about politics and culture at Conventional Folly.