Code Black (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Code Black (2014)

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Code Black is a documentary feature about the doctors of C-booth, an emergency room which sees the most patients out of any hospital in the country, and their growing pains when forced to move to a new facility.  Ryan McGary directs.

You can rent or purchase Code Black from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, or Google Play.

Today might be the dayI normally don't pay attention to who the producers of a movie are but as the credits rolled on Code Black I snapped to attention.  There's the usual list of financiers but what struck me were the number of doctors who put up their money for this film.  Director Ryan McGary's project, which documents the evolution of and frustrations work in an emergency room known as C-booth with a specific reputation, is an important one for these physicians.  "More people have died in that square footage than anywhere else in the United States," says one doctor early in Code Black, and if the stakes weren't made clear by the dialogue they are by the grainy footage of a 21-year old male with multiple gunshot wounds being flown into the hospital.

These moments are brief, but I thought we were going to be watching something like Leviathan for a moment and Code Black would be a documentary about the experience of an emergency room doctor in a visceral or surreal way.  The introduction, with the hazy greens and blues of the hospital rushing with the camera to pick up the wounded patient, was an exhilarating experience.  But those moments of intense subjectivity were quickly gone, replaced instead with a camera that makes easy sense of the chaos going on in C-booth and moments where we cut to talking heads as they tell us why they chose this life.

Code Black is not a great documentary and McGary proves himself a capable director in telling this story, which he claims is non-partisan, and filling in the cracks in his talent with sincerity and pain.  I can't imagine anyone on either side of the aisle watching Code Black and thinking that they have the right opinion on health care.  Even my own preconceptions were challenged when they discuss the bill which forced emergency rooms to treat critical patients, something I've considered a good thing for long, then bringing in doctors which question that decision when someone has to pay for it in the end.  But even then another doctor, shortly afterwards, points to the curious problem where we're willing to sign legislature which protects these emergencies (a leftover of the Regan administration of all things), yet isn't willing to create a program which could have prevented those problems with a few cents worth of medication a day.

The one-on-one scenes reveal anxieties in an often heartbreaking and honest way.

The one-on-one scenes reveal anxieties in an often heartbreaking and honest way.

Such problems linger as subtext when we watch the many shots of the waiting room and cut to the frustrated doctors trying to find rooms for the patients.  Code Black finds one of its working rhythms in these moments, which focus on the painful cost of a system which is ill-equipped to handle so many people.  But those questions add additional depth to these shots and we wonder, just how many people would be able to go home if their problems were treated via easy preventative measures?

These frustrations form the basis of another excellent part about Danny, an idealistic senior med student who tries to implement a fast track program where doctors see patients directly in the waiting room.  Part of Code Black's success is in finding such compelling doctors to share their stories and Danny's idea makes a lot of sense on the surface.  But one of the cruel ironies, which a nurse patiently (if with more than a bit of frustration) explains to him, is this approach doesn't work in the current system.  His idea to try and treat quick hit cases and sent them home just found people with problems more critical than realized, such as a woman who was complaining of a headache and was found to have a brain tumor.  Still, his idea circles back to the question underlining much of Code Black, and we wonder if she would have been in this position if she had access to affordable health care to begin with.

When not focusing on individual cases Code Black finds life, despair, and some surprising sources of amusement.  Billy is a welcome surprise after watching two patients die and he calmly explains why emergency medicine is blue collar work before taking a leak on the property.  His pragmatism lends weight to scenes of struggling med students who are learning the limits of the human body, with one disturbing moment of a student being told to keep pushing a tube further into a patient.  We're not spared this image and I was just as surprised as the student that the body could hold that much.

Less effective are the scenes where the students gather together to talk about solutions. In a film which already wanders around a bit too much, their hazy theorizing about what to do is a step too far.

Less effective are the scenes where the students gather together to talk about solutions. In a film which already wanders around a bit too much, their hazy theorizing about what to do is a step too far.

There's a lot to Code Black, and even without getting into the many testimonials and group conversations which provide idealistic suggestions on how to improve the current system.  But it's all scattershot, the moments which work so well feel isolated from the rest of the experience, which is unusual considering one of the main complaints is in how modern hospitals do their best to separate the doctor from the patient.  The group conversations are easily the worst part of Code Black, where a lot of positive emotion is put out but there isn't much of substance shared between the various med students.

McGary tries a little bit of everything in his approach to Code Black and it's admirable that so much of it works.  Aside from the opening sequence the approach is as simple as can be - point camera, talk about problem, and then introduce questions which add troubling context to the images.  It's a humble film, one that understands the crushing weight of bureaucratic shackles and endless forms, but knows this is how they will still get their funding for those who can't afford care conventionally.  This doesn't prevent some moments from feeling a bit phony, like when a medical student is told a patient self-medicates with mary jane and he does not know what that stands for.

But this student, who shares a heartbreaking story of his college dream deferred because of a sudden diagnoses of stage 4 lung cancer, is also the director.  This surprised me because so many times in documentary films where the director is front and center, think Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock, there is a bit of a self-righteous tinge to the work.  McGary does get the most screen time, but is wonderfully humble.  He is upfront about his anxieties and fear when on the floor for the first time, and the way he cedes ground to his colleagues is noble.  I didn't care about the sometimes ineffective and scattershot approach to Code Black because of the strength of what he does manage to capture.  These county hospitals are at the epicenter of the conversation we should be having about health care, and Code Black makes an effective case as to why.

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Tail - Code BlackCode Black (2014)

Directed by Ryan McGary.

Posted by Andrew

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