July 18, 2021
by Carla Hay
Directed by Austin Stark
Culture Representation: Taking place in 2014 and 2021, mostly in New York City, the dramatic film “The God Committee” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.
Culture Clash: A hospital committee has a limited time to decide which patient will get a life-or-death heart transplant; years later, one of the committee members ends up being involved in a controversial heart transplant experiment.
Culture Audience: “The God Committee” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in medical dramas about ethical dilemmas and won’t mind too much that there’s a far-fetched sci-fi aspect to the film.
The medical drama “The God Committee” has enough gripping suspense that it didn’t need a futuristic subplot about experiments to use pig hearts in heart transplants for humans. Although this type of medical advancement could happen in an unknown future, it’s a part of the movie that’s an unnecessary distraction from the real story: the debates and dealings that go on behind the scenes when medical committees decide which people deserve organ transplants the most.
Austin Stark directed and wrote the screenplay for “The God Committee,” which is based on Mark St. Germain’s play of the same name. Stark does an admirable job of making this story as cinematic as possible, with numerous realistic set pieces and compelling cinematography by Matt Sakatani Roe. There’s nothing in this movie that looks like a theater stage at all.
“The God Committee,” which is set mostly in New York City, jumps back and forth in time between two years: 2014 and 2021. The movie opens in Buffalo, New York, in 2014, when 18-year-old Eli Gurny (played by Daniel Taveras) is shown being accidentally hit and killed by a car while riding his bicycle on the street. He was a healthy organ donor, and his heart has been made available in November 2014 to an unnamed hospital in New York City.
Dr. Andre Boxer (played by Kelsey Grammer), an influential and arrogant surgeon at the hospital, has been told that one of his patients has priority to get the heart. The patient’s name is Selena Vazquez (played by Patricia Mauceri), a widowed grandmother who desperately needs a heart transplant to stay alive. She’s already been told that she’s getting this new heart, so she’s relieved and elated.
However, Dr. Boxer has other plans for that heart, and he shares this information with his much-younger secret lover, another doctor who works at the same hospital. Her name is Dr. Jordan Taylor (played by Julia Stiles), who hasn’t been working at the hospital for very long. Dr. Taylor and Dr. Boxer, who are both unmarried, have agreed to keep their fling a secret because they don’t want it to taint their professional reputations.
The morning after Dr. Boxer and Dr. Taylor have spent the night together at his place, Dr. Boxer tells her that he’s not going to let his patient Selena Vazquez have the young, healthy donor heart that she was promised, because Dr. Boxer thinks that Selena is too old to deserve this heart. Dr. Taylor reacts with dismay and disgust, but Dr. Boxer has already made up his mind. It’s the first sign that Dr. Boxer has a “god complex,” where he knows that he has considerable power to make life-or-death decisions.
Dr. Taylor isn’t just disappointed with Dr. Boxer for this decision. She also seems to want more from the relationship than he’s willing to give her: possibly some real love or at least enough respect to act like he’s not embarrassed to be seen with her in public. When Dr. Boxer drives himself and Dr. Taylor to the hospital, he makes sure to drop off Dr. Taylor far enough away from the hospital entrance, to minimize the chance that any co-workers will see that Dr. Boxer and Dr. Taylor took the same car to work. She reacts by saying in an exasperated tone about their secret relationship: “Boxer, the only person I’m silently judging on in this—whatever this is—is myself.”
Now that Dr. Boxer has made up his mind that his patient Selena Vazquez won’t get the heart, who will get this organ transplant? Most of the movie is a riveting debate among the five people on the hospital’s organ transplant committee who will vote to make the decision. Dr. Taylor is the committtee’s newest member, who will be replacing Dr. Boxer on the committee, much to Dr. Boxer’s annoyance. He’s being replaced because he had already announced his resignation from the hospital to join the private sector.
Dr. Boxer had no say in who would replace him on the hospital’s organ transplant committee. He doesn’t hesitate to let Dr. Taylor and other colleagues know that he doesn’t think Dr. Taylor is a good choice to replace him on the committee because he doesn’t think she has enough experience as a doctor to make organ transplant decisions. Needless to say, it’s very easy to see that the fling between Dr. Taylor and Dr. Boxer isn’t going to last much longer.
Dr. Boxer won’t have long to complain about Dr. Taylor replacing him on the committee, because he will be leaving the hospital in December 2014, just one month after the committee makes the decision about who will get Eli Gurny’s donated heart. In the movie’s scenes that take place in 2021, viewers see what Dr. Boxer was doing for work after leaving the employment of the hospital: He became the lead scientist for an experiment called X-Origins, which would allow organs from different species to be transplanted into each other.
Back in November 2014, the issue of who will get Eli Gurny’s donated heart will be decided in a matter of a few hours. The five people on the organ transplant committee are:
- Dr. Boxer, who is stubborn and the most hardline about making decisions based on science, statistics and logic, not sentiment or emotions.
- Dr. Taylor, who is compassionate and open to take other factors into consideration besides science, statistics and logic. She also thinks ethics are essential in making her decision.
- Dr. Valerie Gilroy (played by Janeane Garofalo), a tough-talking bureaucrat, who is well-aware of the financial problems that the hospital is facing. She’s also feeling pressure because a national medical publication recently downgraded the hospital’s rating, and she wants to bring the rating back up.
- Nurse Wilkes (played by Patricia R. Floyd), a somewhat gossipy and very outspoken person, who is most likely to know a patient’s day-to-day actions in the hospital and the most likely to let a patient’s personality be a factor in her decision.
- Dr. Lau (played by Peter Kim), a psychiatrist who is very analytical and is the least-talkative committee member.
A sixth member is normally part of the committee, but that person is unvailable. However, a sixth person will be sitting in, but not voting, on this committee’s deliberation over who will get Eli Gurny’s donated heart. This sixth person is Father Charlie Dunbar (played by Colman Domingo), who has been a priest for only three years. Before becoming a priest, Father Dunbar was a defense attorney for 15 years, and he was married.
Father Dunbar’s purpose for sitting in on this meeting is to provide any advice or opinions if anyone on the committee is struggling with moral or ethical issues in making their decision. He’s there because the hospital’s board of directors felt it was necessary that morality and ethics should not be overlooked when making these life-or-death decisions, in case any outside people question the committee’s decisions. Father Dunbar is available to counsel the committee members as a group and on an individual basis.
Dr. Boxer strongly believes that religion or spirituality should play no role in the committee’s medical decisions, so he thinks that Father Dunbar has no business sitting in on any of the committee’s meetings. There’s nothing Dr. Boxer can do about it though except try to ignore what Father Dunbar has to say. Dr. Boxer and Father Dunbar predictably clash during this committee deliberation.
Later, it’s revealed that Father Dunbar left the legal profession under a cloud of suspicion and scandal before he became a priest: He was disbarred in 2006 for doing something illegal that isn’t fully explained in the movie. And he avoided prison by “finding God” and cutting a deal with the district attorney. You can bet that this scandal will be brought up when the inevitable arguments happen during these committee meetings.
There are three patients at the hospital who’ve been moved to the top priority list to get the next available heart transplant. The problem is that due to a shortage of available hearts, only one can get an immediate transplant, and that person will get Eli Gurny’s heart. The other two patients will have to wait for a heart transplant for an undetermined period of time.
The three patients whose future health will be decided by this committee are:
- Trip Granger (played by Maurizio Di Meo), a 30-year-old scion who hasn’t done much with his life but party a lot and live off of his rich father’s money. Trip is a recovering drug addict who has recently been admitted to the hospital after having a heart attack. If the toxicology reports find that his heart attack was drug-related, he will be ineligible for the heart transplant, because he’s been hospitalized before for overdosing on cocaine.
- Walter Curtis (played by Kyle Moore), a 48-year-old married father who has a steady job, which he needs to help support his family. Those factors are to his advantage in getting the committee members to vote for him. However, what works against Walter is that he’s overweight and bipolar, which are two factors that make some of the committee members think he won’t be a good risk for the heart transplant.
- Janet Pike (played by Georgia Buchanan), a 59-year-old wealthy widow with no children and no living relatives. To her advantage, she doesn’t have any problems with her weight or mental health. But to her disadvantage, she doesn’t have a support system of family members; a younger candidate could be considered a better option; and she has expressed resistance/hesitation in the past about getting an organ transplant.
There are more than just statistics that factor into the decision making, so there are plenty of arguments and debates on the committee. Trip’s wealthy mogul father Emmett Granger (played by Dan Hedaya), who accompanied Trip when Trip was taken to the hospital’s emergency room, has met with Dr. Gilroy privately and made a very tempting offer: He’s told her that his non-profit Granger Foundation is willing to donate $25 million to the hospital if Trip gets the heart transplant.
It’s money that the hospital desperately needs for important equipment upgrades and other improvements. Dr. Gilroy is also eager to do anything she can to boost the hospital’s industry rating, which directly impacts her career at the hospital. But what Emmett is offering is essentially a bribe. And would Trip deserve to get the heart transplant, even if no money was being offered?
Certain members of the committee are leaning toward Walter getting the transplant because he has a family to support and he seems to be the most willing to get the transplant. However, other committee members express doubts about Walter because it’s revealed that Walter attempted suicide, before he was diagnosed with being bipolar. He has responded well to his bipolar medication since then, which some people on the committee think is encouraging, while others think Walter’s past suicide attempt should disqualify him, no matter what.
The main issues that certain people on the committee have with Janet are that she’s the oldest candidate, she has no family members, she’s ambivalent about getting an organ transplant, and one of the people on the committee describes Janet as a “bitch.” This derogatory name calling gets Dr. Boxer very irritated because he thinks that the committee’s decision should not be based on which patient has the nicest personality. Although she is wealthy, Janet has not hinted that she’s willing to bribe the hospital so that she can get the transplant, and it’s unlikely that she would ever make that unethical offer.
Trip has been unconscious since he was brought to the hospital, so no one in the hospital really knows what he has to say for himself about getting a heart transplant. But someone who knows Trip very well was hospitalized at the same time as Trip was: his girlfriend Holly Matson (played by Elizabeth Masucci), who has mysterious lacerations and bruises on her body. Because Holly is awake and able to talk, Dr. Taylor has an empathetic conversation with Holly to find out if Trip was using drugs before having his heart attack and to find out why Holly is physically injured. Holly seems terrified to say how she got her injuries, but she tells Dr. Taylor some important information that could affect how the committee members will vote.
The committee’s debate over who should get the heart transplant comes with some intriguing twists and turns. Many details, including Trip’s toxicology test results, are revealed that can sway people’s decisions. And each person on the committee brings personal agendas and biases. However, not much backstory is given on these characters because the movie’s main focus is on what these characters do in 2014 and 2021.
There’s an early scene in 2014, when Dr. Taylor is talking to a hospital colleague, who knows that Dr. Taylor’s mother is a well-known plastic surgeon. When the colleague asks Dr. Taylor why she didn’t become a plastic surgeon too, Dr. Taylor says she wanted to become an organ transplant surgeon because “I watched a friend from college die, waiting for a heart [transplant].” It’s implied that this tragic personal experience influences how Dr. Taylor thinks and acts on the committee.
What’s less interesting about “The God Committee” is the time spent in the 2021 scenes on Dr. Boxer’s lab experiments for X-Origins. It’s not spoiler information to say that one of the results of these experiments is that he discovers that a pig’s heart can be successfully transplanted into a human. Considering that this type of transplant is not medically possible in 2021, it gives “The God Committee” a science fiction tone that the movie doesn’t need.
There’s a lot more that’s revealed in the 2021 scenes about what happened to Dr. Boxer and Dr. Taylor since they stopped working together at the hospital. They are both still living in New York City in 2021, so there are scenes where they cross paths again. The decision that the committee made about which patient got Eli Gurny’s donated heart has ripple effects that have continued into 2021 and beyond. There’s a plot development in the 2021 part of the movie that’s a little bit like a soap opera, but it would be entirely plausible in real life.
If the “God Committee” had left out all the sci-fi medical experiments, it would have been a much better movie. It could easily stand on its own as an engaging medical drama, solely based on the dilemmas faced by the committee in deciding which patient should get Eli Gurny’s donated heart. Since it’s the main plot of the film and because all the principal cast members give very good performances, any other flaws of the movie are overshadowed by these assets.
No matter what scientific and technological advances there will be health care, “The God Committee” takes a fascinating and sometime disturbing look at the human foibles that are inevitable when human beings make medical decisions. Needless to say, socioeconomic factors are also directly related to what type of health care an individual receives. But the movie’s intention is to make people think more about which medical professionals get to make life-or-death decisions for organ transplants and how much power these people should really have.
Vertical Entertainment released “The God Committee” in select U.S. cinemas, digital and VOD on July 2, 2021.