It is a night when the audience is but another character in the movie. At a screening for "Article 99, " which deals with abuses and bravery inside a veterans hospital, some are in jungle camouflage fatigues like those they wore in Vietnam. Others sport berets with service pins. A World War II veteran who was at Normandy on D-Day is in a wheelchair; he suffered a stroke two years ago. A victim of Agent Orange walks with a cane.
Not a minute into the movie--which opens nationally on Friday--a perfectly ordinary line becomes occasion for a rocket burst of bitter laughter.
In the scene, the character of Pat Travis, who fought in Korea, sits in his pickup while his wife in their front yard watches worriedly. He has everything he needs for the hospital, he tells her calmly, all the papers. "Don't worry, baby. Uncle Sam is gonna take care of me just fine."
Uncle Sam take \o7 care \f7 of them? Just as Travis (Troy Evans) waits and waits in the bizarre overcrowded lobby with its snaking lines, collapsing with a heart attack before he can get attention and begin to understand the VA system, this is an audience that professes to know the system well. They are, after all, its veterans.
"Article 99," a drama with strong comic overtones, is a metaphor for the rat's maze of complex government regulations that boils down to the reality that the implicit promise of full medical benefits for America's veterans is easily broken--particularly in an era of tight budgets, galloping medical costs and an expanding pool of those in need. Eligibility doesn't necessarily mean access. Triage also takes place on the home front. Now some veterans and supporters in Washington are hoping "Article 99" will provoke controversy the way "JFK" did.
The promise is contained in Lincoln's "malice-toward-none, charity-for-all" second inaugural address in 1865--"to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan. . . ." Indeed, it is the longtime motto of the Veterans Administration--since 1989 the Department of Veterans Affairs.
For years, laws authorized hospital and medical care for veterans with non-service-connected disabilities if they were unable to pay for it. In 1986, the first economic means test was enacted by Congress, and VA medical priorities hardened into specific categories of "mandatory" and "discretionary" hospital care depending on such things as whether the ailment is service-connected, or the veteran's income and number of dependents. Those in the discretionary category, if there's space for them, have co-payments. Seasoned DVA veterans confess privately they're sometimes confused by the rules, too.
It's "Catch-22" for the 1990s, explains screenwriter Ron Cutler, who was led to the story by an unnamed physician friend who works at an unidentified veterans hospital. There is no Article 99 as such but he adds: "If you're entitled to benefits and don't get them, if you say, 'Hey look I got screwed,' that's Article 99."
Starring Ray Liotta ("GoodFellas") as Richard Sturgess, chief resident and heart surgeon who has heart, and Kiefer Sutherland ("Flatliners") as Peter Morgan, a spanking-new intern with an eye on a fancy Beverly Hills practice, "Article 99" tells the story of a band of brave young doctors who wage war on the bureaucracy as personified by their near-Capt. Queeg of a hospital director (John Mahoney).
The movie, directed by Howard Deutch, shows one Vietnam vet pulling off his wooden leg at the hospital desk to prove he is entitled to benefits; another with a clear case of post-traumatic stress driving his truck through the lobby doors and shooting up computer terminals after being denied admittance; a World War II veteran (Eli Wallach) who won the Silver Star at Omaha Beach spending the remainder of his days on a hospital ward ghetto.
At the screening, veterans erupt with glee as patient Luther Jerome (Keith David), a black Vietnam veteran who conducts the admitting lobby's business with a mechanized wheelchair, portable telephone, stereo headgear and sass, tells Travis: "This is the VA, soldier. The enemy is behind those desks. . . ." They laugh as a middle-aged nurse in best drill-sergeant manner informs intern Morgan that for the next 36 hours his butt is hers.
But when another nurse in a minor scene says the hospital doesn't treat victims of Agent Orange, a voice like a crack in the dark calls out, "Goodby. I got to get out of the room." Leaning on his cane, the veteran walks.
At the world premiere in Washington (a benefit for homeless veterans) Feb. 26, the screen got another talking to. According to Rep. Lane Evans (D-Ill.), co-chairman of Vietnam-Era Veterans in Congress, when Ray Liotta's character tells off the hospital director, "one African-American veteran says, 'Give him hell, Ray.' "