A Surgeon Under The Knife

Dr. Jack MacKee (William Hurt), an arrogant San Francisco cardiac surgeon, performs heart transplants for a living. In the course of The Doctor, MacKee becomes sick himself--the problem is with his throat, not his ticker--but his showdown with mortality occasions his own metaphorical heart transplant.

It may seem odd that within one month Hollywood has brought forth two films in which a selfish, successful man is struck down and forced to reassess his life. "Regarding Henry" showed how sappy such a theme could be. But here, director Randa Haines, making her first film since "Children of a Lesser God," does it right. The transformation of Dr. MacKee from a chilly, glib surgeon, who keeps both his patients and his family at arm's length, into a compassionate mensch may sound, on paper, both predictable and pious. But it is dramatized with such precise, honest details--and embodied by Hurt with such implosive force--that it compels belief "The Doctor" doesn't bludgeon the audience with cheap emotions; it achieves its memorable power by quietly, smartly burrowing deep inside its characters.

You know you're in good hands in the splendid opening sequence, an operation in which the doctors deflect the tension with gallows humor and rock-and-roll music. MacKee's ghoulish sense of humor, his trademark, is often at the expense of his patients, but the movie lets you understand that a black wit may be part of any surgeon's self-preservation kit. The trouble is, he's kept his guard up so long he doesn't know how to let it down, and when he's diagnosed with a malignant tumor himself, he's incapable of letting his wife (Christine Lahti) give him comfort.

It's June (Elizabeth Perkins), a fellow patient with a terminal brain tumor, who gets through to him. Her clarity in the face of death--and her anger at the medical establishment, a self-protective "club" that closes ranks rather than admit error--awakens MacKee and forces him to look at his profession, and himself, with new eyes. Their relationship, intense but platonic, is extraordinarily moving. The sharply written script, by Robert Caswell (with an uncredited rewrite by Anthony Minghella), based on Dr. Ed Rosenbaum's book, "A Taste of My Own Medicine," is filled with wit, an acute sense of the indignities of hospitalization and a fine ear for the badinage of doctors at work.

Haines is a marvel with actors--her first-rate team (which seamlessly mixes in real doctors and nurses) coheres into a perfect-pitch ensemble. Hurt, who's in virtually every scene, dominates the film: this may be his finest screen performance. But he's not the only one who shines. There's the quirky, gallant Perkins; Wendy Crewson as the brusque Dr. Abbott; Mandy Patinkin as Hurt's partner, who's facing a malpractice suit; Adam Arkin as an earnest surgeon MacKee puts down, then turns to in need. Lahti gives the underwritten part of the doctor's wife a bruised power, but her relationship with Hurt is the weak link in an otherwise richly fleshed-out movie. "The Doctor" is that rare specimen--a big studio movie that treats the audience (and its own characters) with intelligence and respect. It cuts close to the bone.