Home Video Hovel: Code Black, Craig Schroeder
There’s an incredible lack of focus in Code Black, the documentary film from Ryan McGarry that chronicles the hectic lives of doctors working in the emergency wing of the Los Angeles County hospital, and its relationship to the current state of the healthcare landscape. Having an agenda is fine, but the thesis of Code Black (read: the US health care system is totally fucked) is a completely pedestrian examination of a complicated issue. Furthermore, once the film gets up on its soapbox, it all but abandons the more compelling and humanist stories it establishes in its first act.
Director Ryan McGarry is actually an emergency room physician in Los Angeles County Hospital, and features prominently throughout the film. Given that directing isn’t McGarry’s chosen profession, it should come as no surprise that Code Black – named for the code given for an emergency room crowded to near capacity – is an uneven film. The film’s first twenty minutes are completely devoted to what it means to be an emergency room doctor in the Los Angeles County Hospital, focusing specifically on a part of the hospital referred to as “C-Booth”. Resembling a mechanic’s garage more than an operating theater, C-Booth is a twenty by twenty-five square foot, open-air section of the emergency room that handles the most serious emergencies and is as chaotic and crowded as the floor of the New York Stock Exchange – as one of the doctor’s featured in the film puts it: more American lives have been lost (and saved) in that single piece of real estate than in any other spot in the country. C-Booth and the Los Angeles County hospital were a kind of wild west for emergency room physicians, almost completely untouched by bureaucratic regulations. But in 2008, the historic Los Angeles County Hospital was closed due to earthquake codes and a state of the art hospital took its place, one where bureaucracy and regulations rule the day.
The conflict here is set up well: the renegade, badass doctors are being reigned in by bureaucratic blowhards when all they want to do is save lives. But, despite laying the foundation, this is not the story McGarry ends up telling. At about the thirty minute mark, Code Black shifts focus from the transitional stages of the LA County Hospital towards an argument for Obamacare. It’s a jarring bit of bait-and-switch, veering wildly from the narrative it establishes. Code Black spends the remainder of its runtime creating strained parallels between the troubles of the LA County Hospital and the need for the Affordable Care Act.
I am a supporter of the Affordable Care Act and would love a comprehensive, engrossing documentary about the infancy of our new healthcare system. But Code Black is not that film. Though it fancies itself as a a call to action to those not on board with Obamacare (and a pat on the back for those who are), Code Black doesn’t have its shit together enough to do anything other than declare its side of the argument. The film presents very little causal evidence on behalf of the Affordable Care Act; instead, it puts forth a number of correlated healthcare horror stories in place of actual analysis. Scenarios layered in complication and nuance are presented as evidence of a broken system but no explanation is offered. 18 hour ER waits? The system’s broken. Drowning in bureaucratic paperwork? The system’s broken. Can’t get the healthcare you desperately need? The system’s broken. Code Black addresses the Who and the What, but never gets anywhere near examining the Why. All of the dots are in place, but the inability to successfully connect them becomes a tiring exercise that plays out again and again to diminishing returns.
For thirty minutes, Code Black is a compelling, often thrilling, peak inside a working emergency room and the politics of one hospital. These are the stories that director Ryan McGarry has a firm understanding of and these scenes are deeply humanistic and moving. But unfortunately, Code Black isn’t nuanced enough for these scenes to resonate and compound the film’s greater argument. Instead of finishing his portrait of the LA County Emergency room and trusting the audience’s ability to draw parallels to the state of our health care system, Ryan McGarry grabs the audience by the hair and drags them through a series of conspicuous equivalencies. If there’s a line in the sand, Code Black and I are on the same side; but agreement alone isn’t enough for me to recommend a poorly argued, banal piece of editorializing.