Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB
USA, 2021. National Geographic Documentary Films, Participant, Our Time Projects. Cinematography by Brian Dawson, Matthew Heineman, Ross McDonnell, Alex Pritz, Thorsten Thielow. Produced by Matthew Heineman, Jenna Millman, Leslie Norville. Music by H. Scott Salinas. Film Editing by Francisco Bello, Matthew Heineman, Gabriel Rhodes, David Zieff.
The Covid-19 epidemic reached New York in March of 2020, and for three months the first wave ravaged the city, killing tens of thousands of people and turning hospital emergency rooms into twenty-four-seven war zones. Matthew Heinemann, who has previously shown great bravery in taking his cameras into the dangerous environments of drug cartels and war-torn Raqqa, engages in what might be his most daring project yet, following doctors and nurses around Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens as they fight a Hydra-like virus whose contagiousness is alarming and whose unpredictability is, in the cases that find themselves fighting for their lives in their hospital beds and on ventilators, terrifying. Nurses put themselves through great emotional strain doing more than just administering to people’s physical health, testing their stamina by standing over patients and holding iPhones and iPads so that people can see and speak to their loved ones (sometimes not long before they pass away), and having to actually stand in as substitutes for family members sees them frequently breaking down.
At the center of this buzzing, devastating experience is Dr. Nathalie Douge, an internist who is herself at her wit’s end treating her patients, one moment calling their family to tell them they’re getting better, the next finding out that the same person has crashed and died. Heinemann knows that the viewer is well aware of the content of this documentary, we’ve read headlines, we’ve heard arguments from people with differing opinions about conspiracies or the efficacy of lockdowns, and we have grapped with our fear of the virus or grappled the virus itself, but for those of us lucky enough not to have experienced it, there’s a difference between reading about the worst, deadliest cases and actually seeing hospitals explode with non-stop frantic activity and fear.
Heinemann focuses attention on a handful of patients whose stories are deeply moving, getting to know them and their families, but he doesn’t concern himself much with the wider world of the political disaster that resulted from the pandemic (beyond a few speeches from a pre-disgraced New York governor Andrew Cuomo) until the third act, when he draws a throughline from Covid to the country’s reaction to the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Dougé herself takes part in protest marches through the city and points out the irony of chanting “I Can’t Breathe” after having heard it from so many of her patients, as well as the reality that disadvantaged communities have been hit hardest by the pandemic in terms of serious illness and death.
The pandemic has affected just about everyone in the world and has been distressing or worse for us all, the idea of adding the subject to your film-watching queue sounds counterproductive, but this is not a film about illness, it’s about humanity, and even though the first wave is the first of many (and at press time there’s no end in sight), the film does end its trail of tearful experiences with a feeling of hope.