The God Committee
⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Run Time: 1 hour 38 minutes
Stars: Kelsey Grammer, Julia Stiles, Janeane Garofolo, Colman Domingo, Dan Hedaya
Writer/Director: Austin Stark (Based on Mark St. Germain’s play)
Reviewed at the Tribeca Film Festival
There’s no denying The God Committee feels like it’s based on a stage play (which, in fact, it is) — but stage dramas live and die on sharp scripts and memorable performances, and this is a film that has both, plus thoughtful direction that keeps the relentless dialogue from numbing the mind.
Most of the film unfolds inside the boardroom of a mid-sized New York City hospital, where fateful decisions regarding organ transplants are made by a six-person committee that includes two top transplant surgeons (Frasier’s Kelsey Grammer and Hustlers’ Julia Stiles), a no-nonsense hospital executive (Janeane Garofalo) and a member of the clergy (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’s Colman Domingo).
On this particular day, the heart of a young accident victim is on its way to the hospital from Upstate New York (We meet the tragic donor, briefly, in a shocking prelude). Ordinarily the organ would go to the patient atop the hospital’s transplant list without incident, but a sudden turn of events forces the committee to convene while the medivac helicopter is in mid-flight. They must make a Solomon-like choice in the next hour, choosing a last-minute recipient from three top candidates.
One is a sickly grandmother who’s not certain she likes the idea of having someone else’s heart beating in her chest. One is a grossly overweight blue collar worker who vows he’ll live a healthier lifestyle if he gets a second chance. The third is a young, privileged billionaire’s son with a long history of drug abuse, now in critical condition following a car accident.
And one more thing: Just when the group is about to dismiss consideration of the kid — described by one panelist as “a one-person Rat Pack” — his father (Dan Hedaya) comes forward with a $25 million donation to the hospital. Not contingent on his son getting that heart, mind you. But then again…
So, there you have it: A roomful of strong-willed health professionals debating the value of each at-risk life, examining things like prognosis, support system, quality of life, and circles of influence. It’s sort of like The Bachelorette, except instead of a rose the winner will get a human organ sewn into their chest.
The discussions, as crafted by writer/director Austin Clark — working from a stage script by Mark St. Germain — are a curious mix of passion and professional detachment. The panelists challenge each other, shame one another, question everyone’s motives. There are no slam-dunk ripostes here; just when one expert thinks they’ve made an iron-clad point, here comes another with an acetylene torch to rip it apart.
It’s sort of like an Aaron Sorkin script, except here not everyone presumes themselves to be the smartest person in the room. Quite the opposite: All the talking mostly serves to expose the characters’ all-consuming sense of uncertainty, regret…and often guilt.
The cast is uniformly excellent, offering no-frills performances that bristle with authenticity. As Dr. Andre Boxer, Kelsey Grammer reminds us of what a fine dramatic actor he is. His heavy-lidded eyes seemingly seeing some dark reality beyond the room’s four walls, Grammer is galvanizing as a heart surgeon whose own heart is failing; whose decades of holding lives in his hands seem to have robbed him of any joy in his own existence. Boxer’s most telling line comes when he recommends rejecting a protégé (and newly minted ex-lover) from joining the committee: “She doesn’t realize the heart is just a muscle,” he says. And in Grammer’s eyes you can see not only professional dismissiveness, but also echoes of a haunting desire to return to such a humanely compassionate state.
Said protégé is Dr. Jordan Taylor, played by Julia Stiles — convincingly portraying a physician who senses the emotional disengagement the position requires, but who is not yet quite willing to make that psychic break. As Father Dunbar — the one committee member given license to look beyond the raw data behind each patient — Colman Domingo serves as something of a liaison between the audience and the film. His compassionate Catholic priest registers our intrigue, our frustration, and occasionally our horror at the emotional and ethical gymnastics that unfold behind closed doors.
We didn’t need a movie to tell us we never want our fates to hang in the balance before a room full of disinterested experts. The revelation of The God Committee, however, is just how many unhealthy people reside on either side of that life-or-death equation.
Featured image: Vertical Entertainment
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now