Paramount // 2002 // 114 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Chief Counsel Rob Lineberger (Retired) // March 21st, 2003
When big business threatens innocent lives for profit, she risked everything to bring the system to its knees.
Astute readers of DVD Verdict may have picked up on my bias against artificiality. Either the story is interesting or it isn't...why embellish with Hollywood Sentimentialism? This is entirely subjective, of course, because all movies are fabrications of a sort. But "realism" gets my vote any day.
I was pleased to find that Damaged Care told a powerful and deeply personal story, relatively free of heavy-handed commentary. It isn't so much about a whistle blower taking on a corrupt system as it is a woman fighting an ethical battle. How many of us truly confront our own actions and do the right thing, even when it is perilous to do so?
For a TV movie, Damaged Care packs a wallop. Laura Dern gives a complex portrayal of moral ambiguity. The subject matter is harrowing and timely. Some of the dramatic elements are overdone and a few are underdeveloped. But if you enjoy real stories of people exceeding their limitations to fight corruption, you could do much worse than Damaged Care.
Linda Peeno (Laura Dern) manages to graduate medical school with children and a med student spouse. After accomplishing this feat, she takes a well-deserved break to be with her kids. After many years, she returns to the field as a medical reviewer of case files for an HMO.
This is Linda's first real job, and she is uncertain and vulnerable. She takes her job seriously -- too seriously for the profit-driven executives at MedEvil, Inc. (Okay, it's really called Humana, but you get the idea.) Every claim she approves gets reviewed by her superiors to pressure her to deny more claims. As focus on the bottom line increases, more and more atrocities mount.
Linda gets fed up and jumps ship. She finds work at a non-profit HMO through her friend Cheryl (Regina King). Life is rosy until she witnesses the same profit-centric ethical buffoonery take hold at the new HMO. Her ire increases when she finds that underlings are overriding her approvals behind her back. Linda makes a stand by approving a high profile, high cost voice machine for a quadriplegic.
Jobless once again, she at least had the satisfaction of voicing her displeasure at the system. But she realizes her small rebellion was ultimately an empty gesture. Linda speaks out to the public against the practices of the HMOs, and her life takes an irrevocable turn. Will her renewed assault on health management lead to triumph or despair?
Laura Dern is the engine that drives this piece, but the court will take a brief recess to commend Regina King. She livens every scene she's in, from Jerry Maguire to Damaged Care. His Honor has yet to see her in a starring role, but is looking forward to more of her work.
Back to Laura Dern. She co-produced and starred in Damaged Care, so it is clearly a labor of love. I was impressed at her transition from naïvete to outspoken resolve. Her southern accent is believable and her personal mannerisms convincing. They'd better be, because this movie features a lotta Laura.
A central theme in her portrayal is moral ambiguity. This is not a clear cut case of good versus evil. Linda makes several calls on the dark side of morality. She hides behind empty excuses and company policy, but her heart will not let her forget. This culpability makes Damaged Care far more interesting than some of its contemporaries. Murder is casually tossed about by Hollywood, but what about manslaughter by stamping a faceless sheet of paper? The corporate reality of life and death is absolutely chilling.
Issues at the black heart of managed care are laid bare, exposed to the light of our judgment. There is an Enron-like portrayal of the HMOs that borders on depersonalization, but the fact is that groupthink and profit focus led to some bad practices. We get a reasonably solid glimpse into a corporate machine.
Where Erin Brockovich is sensationalist, Damaged Care is reflective. Where John Q caters to visceral gratification, Damaged Care encourages rational action. Is a tale free of sex and violence interesting? When the issues are this meaningful, the answer is yes.
The image quality is better than you might expect given its TV roots. The composition of certain shots was quite dramatic, such as the depiction of excess at the HMOs. There were few compression or motion artifacts, but contrast seemed low in some scenes. The audio was serviceable, if unremarkable.
There is an artifice employed to add continuity and meaning to the film: voiceovers about a quadriplegic named Dawn. She has a voice machine, and uses said machine to write about the power of voice. Still with me? These voiceovers are woven throughout the movie, beating us over the head with the theme. At first, I really liked the voice metaphor. But by the end, it seemed too heavy-handed and worn out. Too bad, because the idea is sound and Dawn's story is poignant.
Linda's husband, Doug (James LeGros), is awkward. The two have no chemistry, and his personality is plain awful. He starts out insensitive and gets worse as the picture moves forward. His inherent unlikeability makes their separation anticlimactic.
Speaking of anticlimactic, Damaged Care has a problem with focused tension. Certain messages are repeated so often that they become cloying, such as the aforementioned voiceovers and the "unsupportive husband" routine. Yet other sources of tension are underutilized. For example, Linda receives a threatening phone call. That tension is almost immediately thrown aside and never revisited. Why include the setup if you aren't going to capitalize on it? This same problem manifested itself in many ways, such as tipping us off to Doug's infidelity early, and foreshadowing a smear campaign by Humana that never materialized.
I was caught unaware by the ending. Given the measured pace of the first two-thirds, I thought we were gearing up for a dramatic confrontation of sorts. We have threats, a dirt-digging lawyer, domestic strife...all indicating a big confrontation on the horizon. But the end unfolds with an almost glacial serenity, unblemished by conflict. The very existence of the threats and stresses was the whole point, apparently. Foreshadowing does not a climax make. Though I will admit, I sat right up in my seat when Linda opened her testimony before the House. That was a nice moment and well-played.
Linda Peeno became numb when stamping "denied" on medical claims. I share the same numbness when I denounce Paramount's lack of extras. It amazes me that they get away with charging such high prices for bare-bones, made-for-TV movies. Once again, there are no extras despite the wealth of easily accessible material. It took me 0.17 seconds to search Google and come up with Linda Peeno's original testimony before the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Health and the Environment. Is it really that hard to put in a little something to take advantage of the DVD medium?
How does a system go bad and what can one person do about it? At its best, Damaged Care shows us what such a personal struggle looks like. Throw in its timely subject and timeless commentary on ethics, and Damaged Care becomes a truly powerful drama. The tension is slowed by poor pacing decisions and a sanitized ending, but Damaged Care earns a place on the shelves of reality-based drama fans. It is definitely worth a rental if you care about the Health Management system in this country, and worth owning if you need inspiration from time to time.
Laura Dern remains in the good graces of the court. Director Harry Winer, I scold you for allowing overwrought antics to cloud this picture while minimizing real tensions. Regina King, you are hereby promoted to the A-list. Linda Peeno, carry on your work with heart and vigor. This case will remain open until justice has been served.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 114 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Rated PG