Roger Weisberg’s Critical Condition offers a salutary lesson in the difference in viewer response between the fiction and the nonfiction film. What we can comfortably deride as a self-conscious miserablism when it’s mediated through the performances of well-paid actors is not so easy to dismiss when presented directly as the sufferings of real-life individuals. Unabashedly didactic and frequently overwhelming in its straightforward depiction of the more advanced stages of human agony, Weisberg’s film offers an outraged indictment of the American health care system by documenting the lives of four individuals, all facing serious medical problems and all no longer insured.
The point Weisberg makes, and puts into the mouths of several of his subjects, is that medical treatment in this country is rationed out according to the patient’s ability to pay. So not only do we see the patients piling up tens of thousands of dollars in bills, but also being denied a full range of treatment options. One subject, suffering from a debilitating back deformity, is told by an eminent surgeon that he’s not a candidate for surgery and must resign himself to a lifetime of excruciating pain. Not surprisingly, when he goes down to Mexico for a second opinion—a frequent recourse for the uninsured—he’s given precisely the opposite response.
The film’s impact is blunted somewhat by its indifferent aesthetic, or rather, its low-budget PBS aesthetic, which is to be expected since the film is, after all, a low-budget PBS production and designed for television rather than theatrical viewing. But context is everything and if the film is to screen on the festival circuit, it’s difficult to be so forgiving about its corny interludes where factoids pop up over crude images of EKG lines, its artless compositions or its jazz-lite score, especially when they distract from the gravity of the subjects’ situations and threaten to cheapen the meaning of their sufferings. Still, the sheer force of the patients’ stories—four hard-working individuals reduced to a state of perpetual physical pain because of their inability to pay for treatment—goes some way toward negating the film’s aesthetic shortcomings and offers a powerful indictment of a deeply problematic system.