Political documentaries can often make a splash in election years. In 2004, Fahrenheit 9/11 became a firestorm, as Michael Moore took full aim at the George W. Bush administration as he ran for reelection. This year, 2016 has become one of the highest grossing documentaries of all time, targeting the Obama reelection effort. Others documentaries, ones that target specific issues, can also make their mark, such as Moore’s case against guns, Bowling for Columbine. Escape Fire is a case of the latter, an attempt to showcase shortcomings in the heath care system while advocating for some easier-to-achieve solutions. The filmmakers effectively show what’s broken in the system, but might have done a better job in reaching the non-converted had they focused on the stories on the ground.
Escape Fire mixes both a birds-eye and on-the-ground view of healthcare. On the ground, viewers meet a young doctor, Erin Martin, who works in a rural health center, where she’s seeing dozens of patients before lunch, because her center is being encouraged to see as many patients as possible, as many as six an hour. Martin’s struggling with whether to stay in the profession, since she wants to help people, and she can’t in such a short time. Also highlighted in the film is Sgt. Robert Yates, a Marine who’s suffering from chronic pain and PTSD. The conditions in the military’s medical system aren’t great either, and Yates and others are shown to be overmedicated. But the audience also gets to see, graphically, as well as from a number of recognizable medical authorities that the nation, as a whole, is overmedicated and that expensive tests and equipment are often overused.
The film shines most when it hits on the “boots-on-the-ground” stories of Martin and Yates. Both are compelling to watch on screen and offer relatable stories for the average viewer. Martin’s story, in particular, is compelling, since it’s obvious that the medicine she’s practicing isn’t what she thought she was signing up for. There are also some good segments illustrating the points being made by the “talking head,” experts. There’s also an interesting segment near the end of the film that makes a case for changing the way companies offer insurance to their employees, by encouraging more healthy behavior with lower rates.
The filmmaking itself, however, isn’t particularly compelling. The film looks and often sounds like an episode of Frontline, not a documentary trying to break though into the mainstream consciousness and change people’s minds. The filmmakers also try to avoid major political fault lines, probably to their detriment. While there’s something to say for trying to maintain objectivity, there doesn’t seem to be a significant case to be made, other than things being in bad shape.
There’s a lot of interesting points to be made about the American healthcare system, and a lot that could be changed for the better. Escape Fire presents an intriguing case and provides some good perspectives and stories. For those new to the issue, or who’d like to become better versed on the subject, it offers a good way in. But for those seeking something heavier, or for a new solution, they’re likely going to need something more.