The ethical questions arising from John Q are pertinent. They should be asked and they should be answered. How much is a life worth? Is medical insurance corrupting? Has the Hippocratic oath become the hypocrite oath?
John Archibald (Denzel Washington) is a simple working man, whose son gets sick and needs a heart transplant. The insurance policy he has been paying for years at work doesn’t cover such an expensive operation. He needs $250,000. What is worse, the hospital demands $75,000 down payment to put the boy’s name on the donor waiting list.
John’s wife (Kimberley Elise) is desperate. “You’ve got to do something, d’you hear,” she cries, meaning he’s all talk and no action. John walks into the hospital with a gun. He forces the head surgeon (James Woods) into an elevator and takes him down to emergency, where a miscellaneous group of out-patients are waiting for treatment. Immediately, they become hostages and within minutes the street outside is swarming with cops, followed, like a plague of locusts, by the media.
The film starts looking like Dog Day Afternoon. The thing about John is that he’s a good man. The hospital managers are the bad guys. The people in the street realise that a human tragedy is being played out inside and start rooting for John. The hostage negotiator (Robert Duvall) begins his spiel on the phone – “If I say something, you can take it to the bank” – but John knows when he’s being strung along and won’t listen. He demands that the boy’s name be put on the donor list.
Politics seeps through the cracks in the script. The chief of police (Ray Liotta) is worried by what he calls “a lose-lose situation” and possible PR disaster – it’s an election year. The young doctor in emergency admits that the system stinks and there’s no proper care for poor people. The TV celeb news presenters milk the dying kid/loving dad story for all its worth. Everyone has an agenda. Some have guns.
Being Hollywood, the tendency to set up dramatic moments only to drown them in sentiment hurts the integrity of the film. Even so, Washington gives another compelling performance that lifts it higher than it probably deserves. For those who thought his Oscar for Training Day was an act of generosity towards people of colour should be ashamed. John Q is the endorsement, an even finer example of an exceptional actor’s breadth of work.
Emotions are manipulated by the kid-in-a-coma plot, but Washington’s sincerity, Duvall’s presence and the questions of ethics make this so much more than a weepie-with-an-adrenaline-rush.