Code Black (2013)

Director: Ryan McGarry

Code Black is a documentary upon which a television show starring Marcia Gay Harden is based. The television series of the same name drew inspiration by the singular environment that used to make up the emergency room trauma area in the Los Angeles County Hospital depicted in this documentary.

The film can be roughly divided into three acts. The first takes place in the old digs of the hospital and what was perhaps the United States’ busiest emergency room. The hospital used to be so busy, in fact, that it operated at code black, hence the film’s name, meaning that the hospital is overcrowded and understaffed. These first moments of the documentary are riveting and horrifying, the images seem to be depicting a war zone, patients, nurses, and doctors crowded in the area known as “C-Booth” attempt immense feats without all the necessary resources. The images are grisly and the camera does not shy away from showing every cut. Privacy is clearly nobody’s concern. In between high intensity sequences of life saving measures the viewer gets to know the doctors that make up the staff of the hospital, a group of quite young medics training in an environment that is chaotic, adrenaline raising, and overwhelming, to say the least. This part of the documentary is also the best. The pressure, the high stakes, the action, the personalities all work very well and hold the viewer’s interest.

The problems, both for the doctors and the film, begin when the hospital is provided with a new location, new resources, and more space. Suddenly any momentum the film had managed to create is squandered, and perhaps the issue that McGarry was trying to raise was utterly lost on me. Because of the more resources and the new location, suddenly the doctors must face accountability. While before in C-Booth the chaos and limited options allowed for a circumnavigation of any and all requirements and red-tape, suddenly the doctors must actually do things following procedure, and they just are not having it. Having to do paperwork, chart work, fill out forms when requesting labs, the doctors begin to complain that they are no longer the heroes they once were. While I understand to some extent where they are coming from, the film makes them all seem like adrenaline junkies who have had their fun taken away from them. Suddenly it seems that saving lives was never really what they wanted in the first place, and that all they craved was the rush of operating with no supervision and no consequences to mistakes. They complain of the duties, of boredom, of a variety of issues, which mask the legitimate concerns that plague the American health care system, a system that is inferior to so many other countries around the world. And yet all I really could focus on is that these docs just were not having as much fun anymore.

What is the solution? Nothing to do with even an attempt to fix the real issues in the medical field, rather the doctors orchestrate a way to regain some of the intensity and feeling they had in the old location. They establish a makeshift triage in the emergency room. Sure, more patients are seen and treated, but it’s still all about the doctors and what makes them feel excited. The doc is mostly aimless, it doesn’t really know why it exists and ultimately it’s just a showcase of one hospital and its staff and little else. I’ve since caught a couple of episodes of the television series and I must say that you’re better off watching that and skipping this doc, at least the show has a point.

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