Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare

Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare has the power to enlighten and frighten. It’s a compelling call to action for a nation that’s wasting its potential. It’s arguments are based on seemingly irrefutable facts and figures, yet it’s not quite a home run—more like a ground rule double.

Its thesis is like the plot of Prometheus. You see where it wants to go, but the path there is strewn with bumps and holes. Yes, our health care system is problematic—in fact, “problematic” is a massive understatement. And the film hammers that home with precision. However, it flubs the landing just a little by not offering a solution worthy of the problem. Eating right, exercising, stress relief—all good things. But can these practices change government policy on corn subsidization? Or a fast food company’s pricing model? Probably not—at least not in any reasonable amount of time.

But Escape Fire is well-intentioned and features brilliant men and women speaking truth to power. Taken in context, it’s rather convincing. Aren’t convinced bacon and eggs for breakfast every day is dangerous? Escape Fire has a few people you ought to meet. Think meditation and acupuncture are hippy-dippy nonsense? Think again. Directors Susan Frömke and Matthew Heineman, along with the experts they call upon, back up their claims with solid facts, but the claims feel flimsy. I have a thousand questions I’d like to ask some of these individuals, and as my surrogate, Frömke, Heineman, and their filmmaking team let me down.

The film’s other problem is its title. “Escape Fire” refers to the notion that the solution to an overwhelming problem might be right in front of your face. A crew of firefighters are trapped on the side of a mountain when its leader strikes a match and starts burning the ground around him. The men and women around him panic, and most of them ultimately parish, but the captain knew the flames would sail past him in search of more oxygen. It’s a clever metaphor, but the way the film references it is overdone and silly.

The healthcare problem, at least as its described in Escape Fire, has many facets, and none is more successfully tackled in this documentary than military healthcare—particularly as it relates to a soldier’s dependency on prescription drugs. We follow a sergeant in the Army who’s being evacuated after taking a bullet in the Korengal Valley (made famous in the superb 2010 documentary Restrepo). He’s on so many drugs for his legs, as well as PTSD (most of the men he fought with perished). At one point, we see him on the evac helicopter actually fall over he’s so high on morphine. It’s disturbing and sad, especially as we get to know him more. Unlike many of his fellow soldiers, he’s able to motivate himself to kick the habit, and what get him to do so is acupuncture—a technique this self-described hick is incredibly skeptical of at first. The results win him over; When he has these little pins in his ear, he’s damn near invincible. It’s a moving comeback from a damaged hero, and it’s easily this film’s strongest thread.

Escape Fire is full of other honest and admirable individuals with compelling personal stories—like a woman who’s had dozens of stints put in before the age of 40 and a doctor who’s forced to float from practice to practice because she likes to educate and spend time with her patients. This personal touch, as well as the impressive scope of the picture, make Escape Fire recommendable. It’s not, however, among the year’s best documentaries; It’s merely good. It’s searching for an answer that might not be there, and the answers it ultimately poses are nothing but paper tigers.

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