The action in Code Black makes a strong case that there should be more nonfiction films set in hospitals. Unlike 2012’s The Waiting Room, its perfect counterpart, the newer doc is full of thrilling, high-stakes situations, as it’s focused on the emergency room and more often on priority patients than the tedious limbo outside. It opens with what appears to be chaos in the famed CBooth of the old Los Angeles County General, a public medical center that has since been relocated because of earthquake codes. People being treated for gunshot wounds and other critical maladies are crammed into a small space with a mass of people surrounding each operating table, others viewing from an observation deck above. A voice tells us there’s actually order to what we’re seeing, that everyone on screen is a vital specialty member of a team. Even the observers are important, as this is also a teaching hospital and those students are next in line to join those teams.
Seconds later, we see the man behind the voice, Ryan McGarry, M.D., who is also Code Black’s director. At the start of production, he was himself a med student training at L.A. County and documenting his experience just for kicks. Half a decade later, after graduating, he turned all his footage into a feature that depicts a transition from the old facility, built in 1933, to the new building in 2008. The ER and trauma care is now less of a spectacle as far as anything captured on camera — there is no more of that open-area clutter of doctors and nurses and technicians crowding over exposed people. There’s more privacy and dignity for the patients, and more legal protection for the hospital, though for McGarry and his classmates and colleagues there’s assertedly less of a bond now between care receiver and care giver, and visibly less of a raw human connection between everyone involved. With a new computer system for processing everyone who comes in like grades of cattle, the patients come across more as just numbers instead of people.
A lot of the time, the film knocks the way things are done now, especially with regards to all the paperwork involved. McGarry and the rest complain about the forms and formalities killing their passion for emergency medicine. Yet they’re all also big proponents of public healthcare, just without the bureaucracy and organization and follow-through. There’s nothing intently political to any of it, though. Code Black, the title of which refers to the term for a full waiting room, means to take the politics and debate out of the healthcare discussion and merely show the people in need and the people who care both for and about those in need and argue that this is all there is to it. At one point, McGarry explicitly states, “I don’t know much about politics or the economy; what I worry about most is our spirit.” He thinks the matter of everyone getting proper healthcare is as simple as it being right over wrong.
McGarry, whose position as a resident helped him to get phenomenal access and coverage at the hospital, appears on screen as more of a talking head than a first-person filmmaker. He speaks seemingly to someone off camera rather than directly to the viewer, and it’s possible for much of the audience to not notice or make the connection at the end that this guy is also the director. But he is the primary narrator and host, sometimes in the form of scenes where he’s working and acting as if the cameramen are not in his employment. There’s not necessarily anything deceptive about how subjective the film is, but it is always odd when documentarians aren’t forthright about their own role as subjects and/or when they include themselves as interviewees. Still, whether he or anyone else was at the helm, it’d be his and the other young doctors’ idealistic points that give the film its agenda.
Same as The Waiting Room, Code Black acts at times like a fly on the wall documentary, and both films are at their best when adhering to that aesthetic. McGarry, with lots of help from editor Joshua Altman (The Tillman Story) and sound mixer Richard Burton (X-Men), sets up an intense, exciting and occasionally emotional medical drama with an attractive ensemble of characters, including a “rough-around-the-edges” mentor who too perfectly represents the attitude of the old center. Their amount of backstory isn’t consistent, though, which might be due to their being collectively united in their altruism and what they can apply to the point of the film. One of the student doctors gets to be the talking head to criticize facilities who can turn people in need away. Another has the honor of making the heaviest and most common, in docs especially (including The Waiting Room), cases about it costing taxpayers more for the uninsured and poor to miss years and years of preventive care and then end up in the ER for something major that could have been avoided.
The director is kidding himself if he thinks this isn’t a political doc, or at least an issue film, but that doesn’t mean he’s not noble in his romantic view of healthcare. And it’s always an interesting angle to focus on the doctors as heroes, rather than the patients as subjects that the audience can relate to (see Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare for a more conventional doc that does this, too). Code Black is never boring and actually blows through its brief 78 minutes so quickly that it leaves us wanting more — in all areas, including information, history, character study, arguments, solutions, medical procedures, but maybe not gripes. With all the medical TV series out there playing this stuff for soapy drama, this doc shows us something far more stimulating, visually and intellectually, and I’d be interested in seeing it continue.
At one point McGarry says he’s curious about what the LAC ER will be like decades down the road. I’d be up for seeing that as well as the follow-up on where he and the others in Code Black end up, professionally and spiritually and politically (the first one is briefly covered in their bios on the film’s website). We might not even need so many years for the sequel to see them change enough to warrant one.