Likened to a raging forest inferno by the talented nonfiction team of Matthew Heineman and Susan Froemke, the American health care system is diagnosed up one side and down the other in the highly instructional “Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare.” Lacking the outrage and wit of Michael Moore’s “Sicko,” which dealt with the different matter of health insurance, this doc is stronger on finding viable solutions. Prestige cable play and Stateside fest dates will stir the pulses of angry auds.
Like a doctor’s carefully structured analysis of a patient’s condition, the film breaks down its massive subject into manageable, clear, but not simplified parts. Key topics include: physicians’ fees; prevention vs. merely controlling pain; the system’s dependency on drugs; corporate profit margins vs. patient care; patient insistence on maximum treatment, regardless of cost; the rise of diabetes; the predominance of fast food; and the health care industry’s lobbying grip against reform.
Personal stories dovetail with expert analysis from such key critics of the system as medical journalist Shannon Brownlee (who observes how hospital errors are the third highest cause of death in the U.S.), former Medicare chief Don Berwick (who explains the title’s metaphor of an escape fire set to flee a larger fire as an example of how we must think differently about reforming health care) and doctors at the leading edge of alternative and preventative medical practices, Andrew Weil and Dean Ornish.
The disturbing but finally heartening story of Sgt. Robert Yates, hooked on an array of drugs to manage his post-traumatic stress disorder after combat in Afghanistan, illustrates much of what Weil and Ornish advocate: Yates is seen freeing himself from the yoke of pills with a therapy involving yoga, meditation and acupuncture, which the U.S. military is deploying with great success.
Both “Escape Fire” and “Sicko” observe the contradictions of medical treatment being turned into big business, but the message that health care should function outside a for-profit structure is better delivered here by medical professionals.
“Escape Fire” also offers solutions, chief among them that Americans must change their sedentary, bad-food lifestyles: The example here of grocery store company Safeway creating monetary incentives for employees to lower body fat/cholesterol levels and stop smoking, among other goals, is concrete and effective.
The film would have packed additional punch had it included a stronger political component: Getting money out of politics would prevent the health care lobby from unduly influencing elected officials.
The co-direction is smooth throughout, with Froemke’s roots in cinema verite (as a filmmaking partner with Albert Maysles) coming through in sections profiling patients like Yates and doctors like Erin Martin, who struggles to increase her time per patient against the pressures to trim the bottom line. Tech credits are robust.