Father fights system to cure sick kids in ‘Extraordinary Measures’
Parental love is a powerful thing. It drove John Crowley, a corporate idea man at Bristol Myers in Portland, Oregon, to found and operate an independent research center in hopes of developing a treatment in time to save the lives of his two youngest children, stricken with a rare genetic disease. Crowley’s extraordinary parental love is also the motivating force behind Extraordinary Measures, the earnest, workmanlike film dramatization of Crowley’s story.
As the first theatrical release from the new CBS Films, Extraordinary Measures may perhaps be forgiven for looking a bit like a TV movie, maybe something on the Lifetime Channel. Adapted by scriptwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs from the non-fiction book, “The Cure,” by Geeta Anand, and directed by Tom Vaughan, it combines scenes of domestic bliss (increasingly strained as the kids’ disease progresses), and a blandly heart-tugging musical score, with often clumsy confrontations calculated to provide drama as Crowley (nicely played by Brendan Fraser) tilts, Quixote-like against the corporate drug industry. Still, as predictable as the storytelling often is, the film deftly portrays the shortcomings of the for-profit corporate mentality in issues of human health.
The story begins on the eighth birthday of Megan Crowley (Meredith Droeger), a bright, spirited girl who, like her younger brother, Patrick, is confined to a wheelchair with a breathing tube. But that doesn’t stop her racketing around the house in her chair with her mobile older brother. Megan and Patrick are afflicted with Pompe disease, an incurable genetic malfunction somewhat similar to muscular dystrophy in which the muscles atrophy while organs like the heart and lungs enlarge, to the point that breathing and other functions become impaired. The bad news for their loving parents, John (Fraser) and Aileen Crowley (Keri Russell), is that Pompe kids rarely live past age nine.
In John’s desperate after-hours research into the disease, one name keeps popping up: Dr. Robert Stonehill, biochemist at an under-funded university lab in Nebraska, who’s working toward isolating an enzyme that could reverse the progress of Pompe. Unable to reach him by phone, John flies to Nebraska to meet Stonehill (Harrison Ford), and finds a cantankerous eccentric whose research might be the miracle the Crowleys need, but whose abrasive disposition could scuttle John’s hopes for assembling a scientific dream team.
Ford also co-executive produced, no doubt with an eye toward moving out of action heroics and into juicy character roles. Stonehill is envisioned as the story’s loose-cannon trump card; he listens to the Grateful Dead and The Band cranked up to 11 in his lab, goes fishing when there’s work to be done, and drives a pick-up to show what a rebel he is. It’s meant to be admirable that Stonehill has so little truck with the medical/pharmaceutical establishment, and Ford plays the part with a certain gusto, but he never quite navigates the fine line between irascible and obnoxious. Not that the script gives him much to work with, with Stonehill routinely blowing up whenever the drama needs a big scene.
Still, it’s interesting to watch the determination with which Crowley pursues his goal. He gambles on leaving his job and losing his health insurance (his kids’ rack up medical bills of $40,000 a month), and uses his knowledge of corporate financing to secure funding for an independent research foundation in which Stonehill can study his enzyme full-time. The film’s most affecting moments come from John trying to portray himself as an “objective and rational” head of a scientific foundation in endless board meetings with money men, while his kids’ conditions decline back home.
Fraser, Russell, and young Droeger imbue their family dynamics with plenty of heart. And while much of the action occurs in boardrooms, the desperate skill with which John learns to play the game—from selling his foundation to a pharmaceutical giant to secure critical funding, to doing an end run around standard procedures to get his kids placed in the testing program—keeps the story moving along. And every now and then, a cold-hearted discussion of relative death rates in terms of “acceptable loss” will chill the blood of anyone who fears the corporate mentality that operates within the American health care system.
EXTRAORDINARY MEASURES ★★1/2 (out of four)
With Brendan Fraser, Harrison Ford, and Keri Russell. Written by Robert Nelson Jacobs. From the book “The Cure” by Geeta Anand. Directed by Tom Vaughan. A CBS Films release. Rated PG. 105 minutes.