If President Clinton needs a movie to help sell his health care plan, “State of Emergency” would be the perfect fit. The HBO telefilm, starring the always-worth-watching Joe Mantegna, throws light on the dark situation evolving in America’s emergency room, where patients far outnumber doctors and available equipment, and where the corporate mentality has replaced the Hippocratic oath.
Based on the experiences of an emergency room doctor, “State of Emergency” dips into fiction for the needed dramatic elements, but the producers, writers and director Lesli Linka Glatter have assembled a no-holds-barred medical drama that smacks of real life.
The tight script by Susan Black and Lance Gentile provides the fuel for a fine performance by Mantegna, who plays Dr. John Novelli, an emergency room doctor drowning in patience and frustration.
Just when the boiling point hits, enter hardware king John Anderson (Paul Dooley), who has been in an auto accident and is suffering from head trauma. Novelli begins to work on the businessman, but one emergency after another diverts his attention.
Anderson’s condition worsens as he lies on a gurney, and Novelli, operating without a neurosurgeon or CAT scanner, improvises a cure that temporarily revives Anderson but proves to be his death blow.
Anderson’s wife (Melinda Dillon) is unsympathetic to the doctor’s frustration. She files suit and won’t accept a settlement, saying she wants to make sure this kind of neglect never happens again; she also wants to put Novelli’s career on ice.
Lynn Whitfield gives a strong supporting perf as an emergency room tech, as do Dillon and Dooley.
Telepic opens a bit stiff but loosens up as the medical action heats up. Underlying the production is a political message that is overplayed at times, and vidpic spends more time exploring the system’s wounds than in investivating how they can be mended.
Nonetheless “State of Emergency” is provoking and watchable — which is quite a rarity on TV.