DVD Review: Code Black

CodeBlackDVDSTUDIO: Music Box | DIRECTOR: Ryan McGarry
RELEASE DATE: 2/24/15 | PRICE: DVD $29.95
BONUSES: director’s interview, short film
SPECS: NR | 78 min. | Documentary | 1.33:1 widescreen | stereo

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video  | Overall


Code Black
is a curious beast, somewhere between a first-person documentary and a marketing video for working at LA County Hospital’s ER unit. It has the glossy surface of a professional film, but within lies a slightly confused–though passionate—look at the ins and outs of our modern health care system. (And one that takes great pains to avoid getting overtly political.) Strangest of all, director Ryan McGarry is not only making the film, he’s living it–McGarry is actually one of the doctors working there.

The result is a double-edged sword. On one hand, we’re treated to a strikingly intimate, first-person look at what goes on in an ER, far more raw than anything George Clooney ever served up, thanks to McGarry’s insider camera. On the other hand, his bias is clear, and his lack of filmmaking experience lets the film meander aimlessly for a while as it searches for a purpose.

Code-Black-4_optIt finally finds one in McGarry’s peers: a group of young, idealistic newbies whose frustration with the bureaucracy that prevents them from doing their job is palpable. But there’s something slightly off-putting about their portrayal: a perfectly ethnically-balanced group, all of them very attractive, all of them young and full of fervor. They’re cast so ideally, the whole project feels more like a big-budget Hollywood production than a genuine documentary. Everyone is so well-spoken and camera savvy, you’d swear half the conversations were scripted. But maybe that’s to be expected when your hospital is in LA.

Despite the film’s oddly slick style, it does make its point well. Everyone here joined up because they truly want to save lives; a public hospital’s ER room does not provide the cushy, high-paying life we imagine most doctors have. But as our convoluted health care system gets more bureaucratic and over-regulated, everyone suffers—from the doctors to the poor, desperate, suffering people stuck unattended for 15 straight hours. The term “Code Black” refers to an overflowing waiting room, one with too many patients and not enough staff; a situation that’s becoming more and more common. Our young doctors try everything, including breaking a few rules, to clear the endless tide of patients coming through their doors—and you’re right there alongside, feeling their frustration. Yes, the film sometimes comes off as a bitch-fest that toots its own horn, but if any profession has a right to do so, it’s this one.

By the film’s end, you understand why Code Black exists. It’s medical self-expression, an outlet for these young doctors’ fears, frustrations, and needs. If they don’t speak out, no one’s going to do it for them. Watching this doc will definitely give you an appreciation for their role, one that will probably color your next visit to the emergency room.

The DVD also contains a decent interview with McGarry, as well as the artiest, most esoteric short film I’ve ever seen shot in a hospital starring real doctors.

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About Memo

Memo Salazar attempts many things and accomplishes few. His big three are making films, music, and comics, but he'll throw photography, graphic design and film criticism into the ring for good measure. He'll even make you a hand-painted t-shirt if you ask nicely. You can track his activity here when there's nothing else to do at work.