Available this coming week on DVD, “Extraordinary Measures,” starring Brendan Fraser and Harrison Ford, is based on a true story of one man’s relentless fight to find a cure for his children’s rare disease. If you’ve heard this plot before and suspect another “disease of the month” TV movie, your suspicions are not ungrounded. Ford’s performance as an irascible researcher lifts this one slightly above the run of the mill, though it was not enough to acheive box office success. After all, you can watch the same thing on the Lifetime Channel for free.
The malady in question is Pampe disease, a rare form of muscular dystrophy that afflicts children early on, generally limiting their life span to eight years. Pharmaceutical company executive John Crowley (Fraser) and his wife Aileeen (Keri Russell), have two children, ages six and eight, who suffer from Pampe. (In real life, the Crowley children were significantly younger, but adding the years makes the film cinematically richer.) At the outset, the kids, Megan (Meredith Droeger) and Patrick (Diego Velazquez), are wheelchair-bound: as the movie progresses, their physical skills diminish. Both are given only months to live.
Having exhausted all other approaches, John decides to contact the leading researcher in this narrow field, Dr. Robert Stonehill (Ford), in an attempt to find a treatment that will save his kids’ lives. He travels from Portland, Oregon, to Lincoln, Nebraska, and braves Stonehill’s initial recalcitrance. (Stonehill is a composite character, and the research was actually carried on at Duke.) Stonehill claims he needs half a million dollars to find the right mix for a marketable drug but has been denied that funding: his tiny, cluttered lab visually reinforces his outsider status.
So Crowley decides to add his salesman’s skills to Stonehill’s redoubtable scientific acumen, forming a foundation to underwrite the necessary research. When their nascent company needs still more money, they agree to a buyout by a larger company. Here, the story’s real tension sets in, with science (Stonehill) being pitted against business, personified by a Dr. Kent Webber (Jared Harris, who makes an admirable heavy). The theme becomes principle vs. profit, children’s lives vs. the bottom line.
Director Tom Vaughn and screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs try gamely to compress an unwieldy mass of scientific and financial jargon so as not to slow down the story’s momentum. Ford adds a nice twist to the Battling and Embattled Scientist type, making Stonehill something of a jerk. We come to understand why he hasn’t gotten the needed funding: he can’t get along with his fellow scientists, let alone the administrators and bureaucrats who control the money flow. Fraser is a bit too much the sad-eyed dad for my tastes: surely the real Crowley had to bulldoze more people, be more tough-minded to get what he wanted.
“Extraordinary Measures” will remind you of lots of films that you’ve seen, which may be a good or bad thing, depending. Aside from a rather treacly score, it largely avoids the sentimentality that plagues its ilk thanks to Ford’s crusty character and a few scattered comic moments. The movie is rated “PG” for language and some tense situations.