The ending of the new political documentary, “Escape Fire,” is obvious even before you’ve bought a ticket: It’s a Web address. With these movies, it’s always a Web address — to save, stop, fight, vote down, engage in, be a part of something. In this case, it’s health care. (The rest of the title is “The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare.”) The whole thing ends with an urgent plea to visit the movie’s site, which is partially devoted to The Issues, which involve such topics as “overmedication,” “overtreatment,” and “reimbursement.” These pages are starkly, cleanly designed. They come with a depressing graphic slide show and assume the only way to put the message across is to scream it. (“For the first time in the history of our country, LIFE EXPECTANCY IS GOING DOWN.”)
The movie doesn’t shout as loudly. But its righteousness wears you down. A righteous health care documentary with real filmmaking gets you something like Michael Moore’s “Sicko.” Righteousness with none lands an audience in the monotonous murk of the average polemic, which seeks change by simultaneously trying to scare you and poking you in the chest. Viewed five years after its release, “Sicko” remains Moore’s most poignant, well-reasoned tract. Given the ambiguous state of the current health care debate, the movie could turn out to be accidentally timeless.
I don’t know that the makers of “Escape Fire” — Matthew Heineman and Susan Froemke — are going for infinity. This is the movie equivalent of watching someone walk on hot coals, but for 98 minutes. Many of those minutes feature the talking heads of Dr. Andrew Weil, Dr. Dean Ornish, and the medical journalist Shannon Brownlee. Before long, you stop listening (Ornish is saved for the film’s second half). They’re not advancing a narrative. They’re lecturing. That’s the difference between this movie’s outrage and the outrage in a great work of political nonfiction like Charles Ferguson’s 2010 investigation of the financial crisis, “Inside Job.” Ferguson used the tools of the thriller to rivet, shame, indict, and entertain. He had points to make, but he also had a story to tell.
“Escape Fire” contains stories, and I wish Heineman and Froemke trusted them enough to build around each one an entire movie. Instead, they hopscotch from topic to topic and cram together its human subjects. Sergeant Robert Yates — a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, convalescing at Walter Reed Hospital — was weaned from dozens of pharmaceuticals with the help of acupuncture. The use of acupuncture and the fight to have health plans cover both it and Ornish’s so called lifestyle interventions are interesting. So is the Safeway supermarket chain’s decision to cut insurance costs by challenging its employees to get healthy; or seeing Weil walk through a convenience store reading, in amused disbelief, the ingredients listed on food packages.
There’s also the situation of Dr. Erin Martin, who worries that she is sometimes expected to see an impossible number of patients in a day. Martin and another physician, Pamela Ross, are great subjects, in part because we can see them work and how the system often does not.
We don’t want all the exclamatorily titled statistics or Brownlee’s professorial tone or a Web address. We need observed action and its implications. Otherwise, the advice, demands, judgment, pleading, and dismay are just ingredients for an extra-strength public-service announcement. It’s as if Heineman and Froemke think that we won’t know where they stand unless they’re telling us every five minutes. All the movie needs is Yates or Martin or Ross — maybe not even all three. Each is a part that speaks vividly for the whole.Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @wesley_morris.