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Friday, July 2, 2010

Health Care Reform Then and Now: Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Rainmaker” (1997)

The first time I heard about "health care reform" as regards to the impossible cost of basic care – ranging from a random doctor's visit to complex treatment for a chronic condition -- was during the first part of the Clinton Administration, when Hillary Clinton's plan became infamous, having been shot down by the an ingenious media counter-offensive ("Harry and Louise") and a Democrat-controlled congress. The avalanche culminated in the "Republican Revolution" of 1994, and the ascension of Newt Gingrich's "contract with America," whatever that was. The fact of the matter was health care reform – which was code for universal health coverage – was socialism, and was ultimately putting the citizens' health in the hands of bureaucrats, and not in the hand of the "individual." Clinton softened up, became a great corporatist-centrist, the pissed-off folks voted for Nader in 2000, and George W. Bush became president. So go the days of our lives.

When I first heard that "socialized medicine" (which is really socialized insurance) didn't work, I was a Young Republican, which is another way of being a Young Contrarian uncomfortable with any status quo alignment. It was before I ever had to deal with the cost of illness and the ramifications that follow. Actually, long before, considering that my father's insurance plan handled most of it for a time – though, being a kid who didn't make a lot of money, the cost for prescription medication was still something of a burden when I had to pick it up myself.

Getting older, or really, just getting old, puts a different spin on how important health maintenance is for a person's well being, beyond physicality and into the psychological realm, and then economical, sexual, even intellectual well-being. So now in 2009 with health care reform becoming an urgent Hail Mary pass as Barack Obama hopes to get into the end-zone before congress goes on vacation in August, I do not know of anything more perplexing and nerve-jangling. The question stands: how can a developed and wealthy nation not offer health coverage to its citizens, being the walking anachronism of health – while still paying twice as much per citizen in health care while those same citizens live on-average shorter lives than the people in other countries? What in the hell is going on here? The main beneficiaries of universal health coverage are sickos with chronic conditions beyond their control, walking the jagged and shaky line where you are privy to the secret knowledge of how the body actually is the soul and soul the body, something the healthy do not understand any more than the wealthy understand what it means to be poor. These "sickos" cannot afford to be healthy; even with insurance plans offered through employment (themselves now on shaky ground), the costs are burdensome and take a thick bite out of a person's ability to preserve any firm capital base. In the end, there is a rather murky and unfortunate avalanche of after-effects. If you need constant care and maintenance on the engine of your body, lax control of that engine (which is all you can afford – kind of like getting an oil change every 12,000 miles instead of every 3,000) leads to worse problems down the road; you have discovered that time's run out in the form of your expired flesh, which has extended to an exhausted and depressed mind, and a withered will that one realizes is not exactly free, despite what the theologians say. The decay of the body that most people take for granted is visceral with the diseased individual, whose weathered self-esteem leads to less maintenance and care (e.g. you're more likely to eat like shit if you can only afford to treat your body moderately shitty), and kind of a profound sense of alienation. Everyone has a clock on them in terms of final destinations; the diseased individual, however, sees that clock, like a Cassandra. It requires an awful lot of self-delusion to keep that clock's reality at bay, but the second hand ticks loudly, constantly, unbearably.

And so looking out, he wonders, "Oh what I may have done were I only healthy." The sick seem to be burdens on the financial system, but were they healthy or had access to good health care, I believe whole heartedly that many of them would be quite successful, contributing more to the system in terms of money, activities, and ideas. Granted, they may be a less interesting group as well (as Nietzsche pointed out, the diseased man sees the whole picture; he has the key to understanding human nature – perhaps Dostoyevsky wouldn't be as interesting a writer had he not been epileptic), but bollocks to that. Prosperity in economics and health in the body are quite perpendicular, each side helping the other out.

So in this crisis of health and the unbearable cost of being healthy (if not incredible insurance premiums, then it is contracting oneself to a soulless occupation that steals away one's time for reflection and living in good faith, and binding yourself to your work as anxiety always creeps up in regards to keeping it), is it not astounding that really nothing has happened in these past 16 years? Aside from health care costs going up (I paid $254 for a doctor's visit five years ago; now it's $350), and the prices of meds going up ($85…$93…$113!...or how's about $983 for an order of "happy pills"…only $178 WITH insurance), has there been any progress?

How can we be proud of our country here, continuing to say that we live in the greatest nation on the planet? I say this because, as I pointed out, our entire well-being extends from our physical health, and that extends, I would imagine, beyond individuals and into families, communities, and social structures and functions. Goddamn, I can't tell you how much more motivated I am to exercise and eat healthy when I am healthy while simultaneously feeling stress-free. And this, my country, wouldn't even pass legislation giving federal funding for stem-cell research. Strangely enough, acting as an oblivious metaphor for the populace of the country, members of my own family voted for the figurehead responsible for this – even though the results could have been beneficial to people suffering from diabetes and Parkinson's – twice! Why? Because the said idiot figurehead was someone they wanted to "have a beer with."

The brutal truth here is that this is not the land of the free and the home of the brave; were it brave, the Democrats would grow some balls – actually, all of us would grow some balls and march on Washington, doing hunger-strikes, etc. And free? From whom are we free? Free from political power? Free from the British? Ah, but not free from economic structures, which ultimately control the political powers, and so we are after all under some hierarchal thumb. The Republicans protest having government bureaucrats running our health system, but they're peculiarly happy with wealthy businessmen running it as they do now. Insurance companies should be corporate cultures of science, but they are just corporate cultures of profit. This, as applied to disease and health, is only irrationally rational, and is capable of being the fodder for a fantastic movie satire of Strangelove caliber deadpan juiciness.

The most melancholy factor is that even if there is health care reform this summer/fall, I can't help but feel that it's too little and too late. It is a little over-the-top to feel sorry for oneself in this instance, in a country with a silent history of injustices. But the plight of the uninsured in this current system can only be called "unjust." When you look at our health care system, here in "the greatest nation on earth" that young men and women are dying for overseas, and then when compared to those other developed nations it can't help but make one a little sick, and amazed at how – again – America seems to always be late in dealing with crises (slavery and Civil Rights; the two World Wars; the absurdity of Vietnam; AIDS; and coming soon, climate change) – while simultaneously being able to fine a corporation $300,000 for using profanity or flashing a boob on the airwaves. As Colonel Kurtz said, "We rain fire on people, but soldiers aren't allowed to write FUCK on their airplanes because…it's obscene!"

Which brings me to the point of interest that holds this rant together. Namely, Francis Ford Coppola's 1997 adaptation of John Grisham's The Rainmaker, which oddly may be the definitive film about the health care/insurance crisis plaguing the United States from the Clinton years to the present – odd because this is no zeitgeist movie or incredible work of art worthy of Coppola's great 1970s achievements, or even the magisterial dazzle of his eccentric work in the subsequent decade (One from the Heart; Rumble Fish; Tucker; Godfather III; Dracula). It's simply a well-made, extremely well-acted ensemble adaptation of a conventional legal fiction bestseller by a celebrity author who is hardly literary. One could say that Mario Puzo is not a great artist either, but at least The Godfather had a kind of baroque weight that was pumped into healthy circulation with the film adaptation. The Godfather films consequently said something about the times in which they were made. Strangely, The Rainmaker re-watched in 2008 and 2009 (remember, everyone had given up on health care by November 1997), seems just as political as it is entertaining. And it stands solitary as one of the only Hollywood films during the Clinton Era that I can think of directly addressing the problems of health insurance companies in conflict with working class and undereducated families; the only other ones I can think of are Warren Beatty's very good and unfortunately little-seen satire Bulworth (1998), probably a little different because of its overt politics ("Come on everybody, let me hear that dirty word: SOCIALISM!") and its target was the tired and sold-out politicians (like the Clintons) who'd given up on their ideals and the will to change things in lieu of a perpetuation of keeping the populace decidedly not roused (how else can one describe the 1996 election between Clinton and Dole?); and Michael Mann's The Insider (1999), which addresses the anxieties of maintaining health benefits, and how that may conflict with one's integrity. But The Rainmaker, being that it is conventionally populist – even very old-fashioned – loudly calls out the System and directly asks the question: How can our nation let the uninsured just die?

I was motivated to put The Rainmaker in the DVD player again recently for a variety of reasons, most pertinently because I was preparing to see the new Coppola picture, Tetro. Watching it, I cannot help but be surprised by how good it is, particularly in the company of other John Grisham adaptations. The Rainmaker was the last of the Hollywood John Grisham adaptations that began sprouting rampantly after Grisham became a publishing phenomenon in the early 1990s, beginning with The Firm, which became ubiquitous on the bookshelves of insurance salesmen, business travelers, retired schoolteachers, and slacking phone operators. Each Grisham publication was greeted quickly with the optioning of screen rights, sometimes so quickly that, in the case of The Chamber, Grisham hadn't even come close to finishing a draft of the book before Ron Howard began pre-production. The films were met with much anticipation, though each subsequent adaptation carried less box office steam than the previous effort: Sydney Pollack's competent The Firm (1993), Alan J. Pakula's all-right The Pelican Brief (1993), Joel Schumacher's (shrugs) The Client (1994), and James Foley's widely panned The Chamber (1996; the book apparently wasn't as good as Ron Howard thought it would be), which signaled the beginning of Hollywood's disinterest. The sequence ended with Schumacher's much anticipated adaptation of Grisham's first book, A Time to Kill in the summer of 1996, which, though mildly successful at the box office, is probably one of the worst movies I have ever paid to see; it is, to me, no better or different from the subsequent collaboration of Schumacher and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, the infamous Batman and Robin (1997).

Too bad, considering that the book following The Chamber was The Rainmaker, easily Grisham's best written book (though I confess I haven't read any novel of his since), executed in humorous first-person by the protagonist Rudy Baylor. It would also be the best – and last – of the movie adaptations, preferred by Grisham himself, and perhaps the only Grisham movie to bear any kind of emotional care by its Hollywood handlers. Everyone else (Schumacher, Pollack, Pakula, Foley) seemed to be working on autopilot with their delegated jobs (as a side note, it is interesting to compare these films to Robert Altman's 1998 irony-laden film of Grisham's original screenplay, The Gingerbread Man, which actively critiques the simplistic and flawed morality of Grisham's characters, something taken for granted by his good American readers – but that's an entirely separate, albeit fascinating, discussion). It is also funny to think of a New York/San Francisco-based director of operatic event-films like Coppola to be tangling with Grisham's book, all too evidential of the filmmaker's fall from grace, particularly after his previous throwaway effort, the wretchedly embarrassing Jack (1996). At a time when film aficionados were waiting for Coppola to make his Napoleonic return with either the long-gestating Megalopolis project or a black and white 16mm adaptation of Kerouac's On the Road, a Grisham movie, particularly after A Time to Kill and Grisham's own populist simplicity exhibited in the author's loud denouncement of Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, was troubling and a further hindrance to the long-awaited "re-emergence" of a great artist in hiding. Unlike the other Grisham films, there were no big-name actors headlining (Matt Damon's Good Will Hunting was still a month away from release), and in a narrative without guns or sexual tension, audiences simply had a courtroom drama about insurance companies. The Rainmaker had a too-modest box office run, fizzling out quickly. Ironically, the least profitable - and final - Grisham endeavor was the only memorable one.

The handsome organ music that opens the picture instantly addresses its uniqueness as a legal drama, and as we are led into the quirky opening we see how Coppola hasn't at all lost his touch as a screenwriter (though credit must be given to frequent Coppola and Kubrick collaborator Michael Herr, who wrote the narration). Rudy Baylor (Matt Damon) will spend much of the movie ruminating on the double bind that lawyers find themselves in: they are despised, they are a nuisance, and they are deceitful, while simultaneously they are able to enact positive social change (e.g. the civil rights lawyers from the 1960s). As Rudy becomes employed by the firm of a shadowy lawyer named "Bruiser" (an excellent Mickey Rourke) and taken under the tutelage of Deck Shiffler (Danny DeVito), who has failed the bar exam six times, he learns that ambulance chasing is the most consistently lucrative way for lawyers to make money, and also the easiest byway for young lawyers to lose their ethics. When Rudy tells Deck that he didn't get out of law school to chase ambulances, Deck tells him, "Well, you better learn or you're gonna starve." Indeed, what Coppola seems to find so fascinating in The Rainmaker is the process of the "law business", and how that "business" aspect of layering becomes much more important than any kind of genuflection on the upholding of "Law."

The Rainmaker is concerned with this question: what do we think about institutions that were implemented to protect us, when these same institutions in a free-market system of profit can all too easily be corrupted and harmful? Going back to my hypothetical health care satire, we can speculate about doctors becoming doctors simply to make money, as opposed to helping and healing the sick, but what about lawyers? Bruiser's firm is not interested in the suffering victims whom they are representing in ambulance-chasing lawsuits; only the profits (one third of the final settlement) that they will reap. The Law in this story operates as a machine dictated by either very precise rules or a mastery of lawyer-speak; due process is a drawn-out and seemingly absurd process unrelated to real human dialogue and exchange. The person usually controlling the language of the dialogue is the party that can afford the best – or most distinguished – lawyers. The most fascinating thing I see in Law is how a lawyer can be identical to a post-modernist philosophy student in terms of creating or deconstructing truth simply by controlling language and contexts.

Rudy gets his feet wet by taking on a case involving the Blacks, a lower-middle class family struggling with the insurance company Great Benefit. The insurance company is denying a claim of the Blacks' dying son, whose chances of survival would be greatly increased if he had a bone marrow transplant. The motives for taking on the case are revealed from two perspectives: the humanitarian viewpoint of Rudy, and then the financial motive of Deck ("There's nothing more thrilling than nailing an insurance company.") Representing Great Benefit is an expensive team of lawyers headed by Leo Drummond (Jon Voight), eager to make a settlement with the Black family because, after all, their fees amount to more than any reasonable settlement. Drummond makes Rudy an offer of $75,000 while in chambers with a corrupt judge (Dean Stockwell) who is also in the pocket of the big corporation (his staccato cough leads Deck to whisper into Rudy's ear, "Big supporter of the tobacco lobby.")

However, the mother, Dot Black (Mary Kay Place), is not going to be bought, being that any money she receives from the lawsuit will go towards cancer research. Her determination is fortuitously complemented by the corrupt judge suddenly dying, who is replaced by a black liberal, Tyrone Kipler (Danny Glover), who clearly sides with the underdog Rudy, and is not impressed by the arrogance or pretensions of Drummond and Great Benefit's estimable team. Nevertheless, Drummond and Great Benefit exercise their power by controlling witnesses. The key witness, Jackie Lemanczyck (Virginia Madsen), has been missing since her resignation from Great Benefit, and other key witnesses have been "downsized." Their absence at a preliminary meeting leads Rudy to break any social niceties and directly ask Drummond, "Do you remember the first time it was when you sold out?" Rudy's position here is indicative of an idealist populism that permeates much of the film, but it's a good question for Drummond, who seems like countless other politicians and lawyers who are happy to represent any body of persons or corporations at the cost of a link with a larger human base. Drummond calls Rudy an "arrogant puissant" in response; after all, he has generated a sense of hospitality and warmth towards Rudy up to this point, but we realize, as does Rudy, that this pleasant demeanor is precisely the "even keel" position that keeps individuals and corporations corruptible.

The victim with cancer, Donny Ray Black, dies before the trial can be finished, prompting Rudy to ask how we can allow the uninsured to die in a wealthy country with great technology and doctors. We learn that it is actually the modus operandi of Great Benefit to deny claims within its twisted yarn-ball of offices and representatives, continuously making money off of paying customers while offering no coverage in return, the executives growing wealthy while the sick perish. This is revealed by Jackie Lemanczyck, who has been found by Deck and Rudy, when she testifies and admits that she signed a letter of resignation in order to keep payoffs and benefits for herself and her own children, which like Mann's The Insider points out the twisted paradox of our private selves and our working selves: we undergo acts of bad faith to protect those dear to us. Jackie, it is revealed (to the detriment of her testimony), had been bribed by the Great Benefit executives, who would give her raises and promotions in exchange for sexual favors, a fact that the philandering executives are willing to disclose because the individual is always secondary to the protection of the capital machine.

There is little mystery to the conclusion of the film, though it remains very satisfying, as Great Benefit is ordered to pay off $50 million to the Black family after it is revealed that the company's CEO (Roy Scheider) cannot list off a single moment when his company has actually paid off on a claim. Rudy and Deck are triumphant, though Great Benefit files for bankruptcy before they can deliver a single penny of their debt to the Blacks. "Great Benefit's like a bad slot machine - it never pays off!" Deck jokes in frustration, then adds, "We should have taken the $75,000," indicating that he's learned nothing about the difference of a capital statement versus a symbolic one. "It's all gotten twisted - this whole law profession," he admits, descending the stairs and leaving Rudy, who cannot help but agree. The Rainmaker concludes on an ambiguous note, again distinct from other Grisham films, as Rudy admits that he probably will not be able to go on practicing law and will instead teach it. The law in practice will never be as commendable as law in theory, which is a melancholy realization. Were Rudy to continue practicing, he admits that it may only be a matter of time before he is like Leo Drummond or Bruiser Stone, "another shark in the dirty water."

These rather murky final moments help elevate the picture above formulaic popular legal drama, though it remains nothing too extraordinary. The film's sentimentality is at times too distracting to seem genuine, and a romantic subplot involving Rudy's budding relationship with a battered wife (Claire Danes) is hackneyed and tired. But The Rainmaker is a fine portrait of corporate corruption and the absurdity of law in a for-profit late capitalist economy. Coppola is going beyond the implicit corruption of the law profession and speaking about all professions of protection and safety. What does it mean if the Chief Executive Officer of a health insurance company does not care anything for the health of citizens? These same companies and executive personages, who would stop at nothing to kill the wide ranging changes made to a health care system put in effect to protect citizens in the only developed country on earth that doesn't see health care as a protective right (the same way law enforcement and fire-fighting are protective and essential institutions open to everyone)? It would be silly of me to say that The Rainmaker is one of the greatest political films ever made, better though it may be than many other high profile prestige pictures, but what strikes me as being vastly more silly is that a pop film like this was made more than ten years ago, and virtually nothing has changed regarding the problems it directly addresses.

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