John Archibald lives between a rock and a hard place. A factory worker who cares profoundly about providing for his family, John gets the short end of the stick during a production slump. His hours are cut back to part time, and he can’t get a second job. Money gets so tight that the family station wagon is repossessed and his wife Denise is forced to take a job at a grocery store to help make ends meet.
Life looks like it can’t get worse—so of course it does. John and Denise’s nine-year-old son, Mike, collapses in the middle of a baseball game and is diagnosed with severe heart disease. Bottom line: If Mikey doesn’t get a new heart, he’ll die. And here, John finds out just what a tight spot he’s in. Because he is only working part time, he no longer has full health benefits. But because he’s employed, he can’t fall back on welfare and Medicaid. From hospital administrators, to doctors, to HMO reps, the healthcare world slams its door on him. Face the facts, John, your son is going to die.
But John Q. won’t stand for it. On the day Mike is to be discharged from the hospital to die at home, John forcibly takes over the emergency room, demanding that his son be put on the recipient list for a new heart. He says he’s willing to do anything—even put his own life and the life of innocent patients in danger—to see Mike get a heart. It’s up to seasoned negotiator Frank Grimes to talk an impassioned father down from a very high ledge.
positive content: John Archibald is a man among men when it comes to his family—his commitment to them is strong and beautiful. He and Denise love each other deeply, though they’re not unrealistically happy. John regularly tells Mike that he loves him, and shows it in both big ways and small. He talks to his son about what’s important in life (“Listen to your mom. . . . Tell her you love her every day. Treat girls like princesses. Be a man of your word. . . . Don’t smoke. Be kind . . .”). He takes an interest in bodybuilding and baseball because those are Mikey’s loves. And more than that, he’s willing to lay down his life for his son. Mikey has apparently learned well. When things get financially rough, he volunteers to give up the allowance money he’s saved, telling his dad, “We’re a family. We gotta stick together.”
While John is desperate enough to hold up a hospital, he’s human enough to show compassion for E.R. patients, letting the husband of a woman in labor go free with her and seeing to it that those with life-threatening illnesses are treated, regardless of their financial situations (“This hospital’s under new management now. Free healthcare for everyone”). Regrettably, violence accompanies a selfish, abusive boyfriend’s comeuppance, but the group who administers “his punishment” clearly loathes his terrible actions.
spiritual content: One line contains dubious theology: “That’s what faith’s all about—believing what you don’t want to believe.” But in touching contrast to the heartless hospital director (“There is a limit to our generosity”), the Archibalds’ church rallies around them to provide as much as possible for Mike’s hospital expenses. A priest is shown giving last rites to a dying girl. And Denise makes a point to ask her husband, “Are you prayin’ for [Mikey]?” (She also sneers at the hospital director, “I would tell you what I think of you, but I’m a Christian woman.”) An E.R. hostage tells John, “Sometimes you gotta just let go and let God.” John admits that he’s not sure if his plot will work and says that he’s “waiting on a miracle—waiting on an act of God.”
sexual content: The abused girlfriend wears short shorts and tight clothes.
violent content: A woman in a car carelessly passes another vehicle and is broadsided by a huge truck. A man threatens to kill himself and puts a gun to his own head several times. An open chest cavity is shown during a surgery scene. A man in the E.R. is missing the tip of his finger, another is admitted with gunshot wounds. John holds a gun to a security guard’s head and threatens to start offing emergency room hostages if the hospital won’t put Mike’s name on the heart recipient list. One captive stabs John’s shoulder with a scalpel. John head-butts him, making his nose bleed. Hospital chemicals are used twice as mace. A police sniper takes a shot at John.
crude or profane language: John Q holds itself to a PG-13 by having John’s blue-collar buddies use words like “friggin’” and “screw you” rather than their harsher counterparts. Still, several dozen mild profanities, nine s-words and two f-words litter the script. Both God’s and Jesus’ names are misused repeatedly.
drug and alcohol content: John’s friend Jimmy smokes cigarettes.
other negative elements: Moviegoers are led through a maze of moral dilemmas and situation ethics. In an otherwise heartwarming and positive conversation with Mike, John tells his son, “[When you grow up] make money if you get a chance, even if you’ve got to sell out once in a while. Everything is so much easier with money.” Throughout the negotiation process, public officials lie—to John and to each other—in order to expedite what they think will be the best solution. Policemen are more concerned with public image than the loss of human life. As a kidnapper in a hostage situation, John is painted in such a sympathetic light that even his captives like and respect him. That portrayal will surely cause some to view his actions as “righteous retribution” or even an admirable example of devotion and love for one’s child. It’s heartrending, but the ends (in this case, saving Mike’s life) simply don’t justify the means (threatening to take other lives).
conclusion: John Q jumps on several social soapboxes: the healthcare system, the mistreatment of the working poor, political posturing, media exploitation. Unfortunately, the movie can’t decide which cause it really wants to champion. So it meanders among blatant stereotypes and flat characters. Classist cliches get a heavy workout (Nobody, no matter how wealthy they are, wears an ascot in the hospital, in the daytime. But one of John Q’s rich patients does). Hospital administrators are painted as completely heartless, barely human individuals. And the liberal politics of state-run healthcare get more than one plug. This film’s not exactly clear on what its agenda is, but it wants you to know it definitely has one.
In contrast to all that, Denzel Washington is just what we expect him to be—a convincing father who cares deeply for his dying son and leads audiences to do the same. Which, in this case spells trouble, because it means John Q can’t just be written off as second-rate storytelling. Viewers will be pulled into John’s moral and emotional dilemma, and some will emerge with the conclusion that John’s actions are justifiable. They’re not. Worth discussing? Yes. Worth embracing and/or emulating? No. And though the movie gives a nod to consequences and justice (many of John’s actions are explained away by a plot twist, and for the rest he gets a couple years in prison), the overall emotional effect is to make the viewer root for a guy who’s flagrantly breaking the law and quite possibly trying to play God. That, along with foul language and the constant threat of violence, makes John Q a dicey prescription for families.