Set in a dilapidated Veterans Administration hospital, Article 99 may be the first medical melodrama that isn’t about dedicated physicians performing life-saving acts of valor. It’s about dedicated physicians not performing life- saving acts of valor: Their hands are tied by the crisis in veterans’ health care — the calamitous lack of funding, the red tape, the increasingly prevalent policy of refusing to cover conditions (such as heart problems) that aren’t directly related to military service. To function as doctors, the movie’s heroes have to become outlaws in their own hospital. Chief among the rebel healers is Leonard Sturgess (Ray Liotta), a crusading surgeon who’s an old hand at stealing supplies and forging documents. Kiefer Sutherland is the new kid on the block, a cautious yuppie intern who forms a sentimental attachment to an aging patient (Eli Wallach).
With its crew of surgical hotshots issuing directives in hipster slang (”All quiet on the Western front — let’s zap him!”), Article 99 would love to be a muckraking M*A*S*H. Yet the movie, which has a live-wire surface energy and an urgent performance by Liotta, is a shallow, tabloid expose. The hospital here is a cartoon of bureaucratic inefficiency: It’s so badly run that the patients seem lucky if they can get an aspirin. I don’t mean to trivialize the crisis in veterans’ health care — it’s an outrage that has dragged on for years — but Article 99 is more interested in tapping our collective adolescent self-righteousness than it is in showing us how a veterans’ hospital actually functions (or doesn’t function). In the ridiculous, shoot-the-works finale, the villainous hospital chief (John Mahoney) is exposed and reprimanded by a high-ranking Washington official. Didn’t it occur to the filmmakers that it’s the government’s policy — and not some hog-tied administrator — that’s responsible for the situation they so glibly assail? C