Code Black – by definition, this term marks a nightmare scenario in hospitals signifying an overflowing waiting room, but Ryan McGarry’s documentary of the same name is an enlightening message in a time where politicians are constantly debating the likes of Obamacare and medicinal legalities. While you may whine about your monotonous 9-5 desk job, complaining about trivial nuisances like working an extra hour or being overlooked by bosses, why don’t you try being a doctor? Our jobs don’t hold people’s lives in the balance, they can’t cause tragedy with the simplest miscalculation, and they certainly don’t include “pronouncing death” on the job report – something Dr. McGarry offers an unprecedented taste of with his powerful, riveting documentary. These are the brave soldiers fighting on US soil to save lives, preserve families, and defeat common enemies, yet governmental procedures are making their jobs tougher and less fulfilling. These are true, modern day heroes, but what happens when their professional spark is suffocated under a stack of bureaucratic forms and waivers?
Following a team of LA County emergency room doctors, McGarry invites viewers into a world we only know through procedural medical dramas doing their best to mimic real life – but Code Black is the real thing. Never before have cameras captured such personal accounts of surgical procedures, albeit a bit too graphic for some, but more importantly, McGarry captures a doctor’s involvement every step of the way. Highlighting the differences between old school efficiency and new school documentation, the current state of the medical profession is dissected at large by teachers and students fluent in both schools of thought. McGarry doesn’t use his film as a soap box for personal Obamacare propaganda though, as Code Black focuses on a much more important trend – a growing frustration throughout individuals who simply want to help.
Other documentaries should be envious of Code Black for many reasons, but mainly because McGarry understands exactly how to convey his message through nothing but raw, human emotion. I figured at some point our filmmaker would make a preachy turn into the perils of Obamacare, or something governmental in nature, but never once is the breathtaking focus on humanity lost. Medical professionals are dealing with major problems, but hardly ever is a judgmental finger wagging in our faces, placing blame elsewhere while remaining a biased hero. As politicians bicker and picketers march around hospital parking lots, McGarry simply invites us into his world, right into the belly of the beast, and shows us the problem – admitting answers won’t arise during one single shift. Realizations are scary, unfortunate, and meant as a warning, but McGarry refuses to sugarcoat reality while laws and bills become systematically clogged.
While Code Black mainly acts as a cautionary flare, McGarry also captures doctors at their weakest moments to combat a cultural phenomena where patients are finding any possible reason to sue their physician. Over time, the image of doctors has become distorted, inserting dollar signs in their eyes while not caring properly for patients, but McGarry and his gung-ho team dare to challenge such broad generalizations. Watching doctors jump into action with pinpoint accuracy provides an astonishing enough exemplification of some of the coolest minds around, but human traits shine through after each outcome. Smiles flash when parents are reunited with previously unconscious children, just as blank, dead stares take over when a death has to be pronounced. Accepting such failure as an occupational outcome weighs on the doctors, but they also have the professional composure to overcome each loss and become even more determined when the next critical case is wheeled in.
McGarry and his specific team were trained in the hellish confines of “C-Block” – a tiny area in the original LA County Hospital structure where the worst of the worst were transported. Because of the building’s age, there were no computers down there, and the doctors were able to act on nothing but instinct. Life-threatening case after life-threatening case kept doctors busy 24/7, forcing young physicians to be on their A-game no matter what – but these ambitious individuals thrived off said “controlled” chaos. Since moving to LA County’s new earthquake-safe building, McGarry confesses to feelings of detachment brought on by regulatory paperwork that came with a hospital now officially up to code. A two minute visual diagnosis now requires 20 minutes of form-filing, paper-signing, and time-logging, wasting countless hours that could be directed towards seeing actual patients. What happens when we extinguish a flame inside those meant to protect us, reducing high-octane roles to nothing but mindless paper-pushing?
As expected, Code Black may be too “open” for squeamish viewers to stomach. Wasting no time, McGarry’s uncensored recordings set expectations early while we watch a large, overweight patient being opened up horizontally across his stomach, revealing squishy innards for all to see. Honestly, as a devout horror fan, all the practical effects goriness in the world couldn’t prepare me for reality, watching a scalpel slice through blubbery fat like a knife through warm butter. Making matters worse is the helplessness of watching doctors call a patient’s “Time Of Death,” creating a sympathetic bond with those who must deal with life’s greatest mystery on a daily basis. Code Black may be sobering and scary for some, but these dark moments of tragedy are essential in conveying how strong medical professionals must remain – a true testament to a group of people with a constant IV of ice water flowing through their veins.
While officials sit around discussing the state of modern medicine, Code Black boils these debates down to nothing but raw, human emotion - with lives hanging in the balance.