Film Review: ‘Code Black’

Ryan McGarry's documentary offers a bracing, often stomach-churning glimpse inside one of America's busiest emergency rooms.

Ryan McGarry, Andrew Eads, Jamie Eng, Danny Cheng, David Pomeranz, Richard Goldberg, Stuart Swadron, Arash Kohanteb, Billy Mallon, Luis Enriquez, Clare Roepke, Sean Henderson, David Williams.

A doctor’s-eye view of the daily chaos of a major metropolitan hospital proves a major boon and a minor limitation in “Code Black.” Shot during the course of his residency at Los Angeles County General Hospital, physician-filmmaker Ryan McGarry’s documentary offers a bracing, often stomach-churning glimpse inside one of America’s busiest emergency rooms, as well as an inquiry into our broken health-care system — one that might have benefited from a less earnest, more distanced approach. With its combination of verite immediacy and slick packaging, this attention-grabbing companion piece to last year’s “The Waiting Room” should parlay its L.A. Film Festival heat (it won the documentary jury prize) into further fest play and theatrical appointments.

As one of the largest and busiest teaching hospitals in the country, L.A. County General, also known as L.A. County+USC Medical Center, employs more than 1,000 residents at a time. (For the record, a family member of this critic is an LAC+USC medical technologist.) McGarry was one of those residents when he began filming inside the C-Booth, or critical booth, the area of the ER reserved for major trauma patients; as presented here, it’s as tumultuous and blood-spattered a war zone as any seen onscreen in recent memory. The procedures routinely conducted in this 20-square-foot bay — the insertion of a chest tube, treatment of severe burns, etc. — are captured in startling and (for non-medics) often squirm-inducing closeup, conveying the extreme circumstances under which ER physicians go about the business of saving lives.

This graphic handheld footage, joltingly edited by Joshua Altman (who co-wrote with McGarry), feels at once deeply relevant and somewhat calculated to get under the viewer’s skin; certainly it impresses on us the unique fearlessness it takes to operate, with speed, confidence and precision, on the human body. The residents interviewed here speak of their baptism-by-fire experiences in C-Booth with a rush of pride and adrenaline, describing it as a place where they not only proved themselves, but provided the sort of urgent, hands-on patient care that motivated many of them to practice medicine.

Working with d.p. Nelson Hume, who filmed all but the C-Booth footage, McGarry broadens the film’s perspective to address some of the issues framing the health-care debate, particularly the bureaucratic tedium that has led to a diminished emphasis on doctor-patient interaction. LAC+USC, which in 2008 transitioned from its old stone headquarters to a state-of-the-art $1 billion facility, offers a particularly relevant illustration of these problems in microcosm.

As more than one interviewee notes, doctors and nurses now spend far more time filling out paperwork and logging data than they spend actually seeing patients, exacerbated to some degree by the more sterile, compartmentalized design of the new building and others like it. Yet the problem is also endemic to a system crippled by chronic understaffing, rampant overcrowding and a business-first mentality. As the film’s interviews demonstrate, the patients cramming the waiting rooms at major urban hospitals are often low-income individuals, lacking proper access to medical attention, yet in the direst possible need of it.

The bruised idealism of McGarry and his fellow residents, their determination to speed up the process, reduce wait times and administer treatment to those who cannot afford it, feels genuinely touching and inspiring. This remains true even when the film’s argumentative stance comes off as a trifle simplistic, or when its bright-and-shiny aesthetics — the sight of these fresh-faced young doctors posing around a restaurant table can’t help but suggest a “Grey’s Anatomy” photo shoot — threaten to undercut the seriousness of its message.

A more detached, contemplative perspective, as well as a few more words from the more veteran practitioners briefly interviewed here, may well have yielded a longer, more probing and informative work. Which is not to devalue the film we have before us, courtesy of a doctor clearly gifted with more than one skill set: At 81 minutes, “Code Black” feels like a brisk, vital report from the frontlines of emergency medicine, forged and rooted in the most intense sort of personal and professional experience.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Code Black'

Reviewed at Los Angeles Film Festival (competing), June 18, 2013. Running time: 81 MIN.

Production: (Documentary) Produced by Linda Goldstein Knowlton. Executive producers, Mark Jonathan Harris, Marti Noxon, Edward Newton, William "Billy" Mallon, Jan Shoenberger, Matthew Damron, Diku Mandavia. Co-producers, Andrew C. Richley, Thomas G. Miller.

Crew: Directed by Ryan McGarry. Written by McGarry, Joshua Altman. Camera (color, HD), Nelson Hume; editor, Altman; music, James Lavino; sound, Theresa Radke; line producer, Patricia Bischetti.

With: Ryan McGarry, Andrew Eads, Jamie Eng, Danny Cheng, David Pomeranz, Richard Goldberg, Stuart Swadron, Arash Kohanteb, Billy Mallon, Luis Enriquez, Clare Roepke, Sean Henderson, David Williams.

More Film

  • Yao Chen in “Send Me to

    Cheng Cheng Films Nabs North American Rights to China's 'Send Me to the Clouds'

    New York-based distributor Cheng Cheng Films has acquired North American rights to first-time Chinese director Teng Congcong’s comedy drama “Send Me to the Clouds,” starring and produced by A-list actress Yao Chen. The company is planning a theatrical release for fall 2019. “Cheng Cheng has always championed films with strong female leads,” the firm said [...]

  • A White White Day

    Film Movement Brings ‘A White, White Day’ to the U.S. (EXCLUSIVE)

    OSLO  —  New-York based distributor Film Movement has acquired U.S. rights to critically-lauded Icelandic drama “A White, White Day,” today’s opening film at New Nordic Films in Haugesund. In a separate deal, sales agent New Europe Film Sales has closed French-speaking Canada with Funfilm and English-speaking Canada with Game Theory. Hlynur Pálmason’s sophomore pic, “A [...]

  • (from left) Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham)

    Korea Box Office: ‘Hobbs & Shaw’ Topples ‘Exit,’ ‘Roar to Victory’  

    Opening on Wednesday, “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw” debuted on top of the South Korean box office. Showing on some 1,311 screens nationwide, the UPI release earned $15.1 million from 2.03 million admissions over five days. That included the four-day National Liberation Day weekend. “The Battle: Roar to Victory” remained in second. The [...]

  • Tracy Morgan Netflix stand-up special

    Film News Roundup: Tracy Morgan Joins Eddie Murphy's 'Coming 2 America'

    In today’s film news roundup, Tracy Morgan and Michael Rooker book roles in major movies, and Gravitas buys “Christmas Break-In.” CASTINGS Tracy Morgan has signed on to appear in Eddie Murphy’s “Coming 2 America” sequel as the brother of Lesley Jones’ character. “Hustle & Flow” helmer Craig Brewer is directing the project with Murphy, Kevin [...]

  • Spider-Man Far From Home

    'Spider-Man: Far From Home' Gets Re-Release With New Scene

    Sony Pictures is re-releasing “Spider-Man: Far From Home” with a new action scene. Starting Aug. 29, a new extended cut, featuring four minutes of a never-before-seen action sequence, will be released in theaters in the United States and Canada. The film will also be available in IMAX and large formats in select locations. “Spider-Man: Far [...]

  • Matthew Modine

    Supporters Back Matthew Modine After Clumsy Joke at SAG-AFTRA Meeting

    More than 100 women, including Ellen Barkin and Allison Janney, have voiced support for Matthew Modine’s campaign for SAG-AFTRA presidency, following a joke at a SAG-AFTRA meeting that some decried as misogynist. With voting set to conclude on Aug. 28, the campaigns have featured vitriolic attacks between supporters of Modine, secretary-treasurer Jane Austin and incumbent [...]

  • Lady Gaga

    Variety Earns 14 Folio: Eddie & Ozzie Award Nominations

    Variety has received 14 Folio: Eddie & Ozzie award nominations for its coverage of the entertainment industry over the past year. The awards gala, which will take place at The Hilton Midtown in New York City on Oct. 30, celebrates publications that have demonstrated impressive investigative journalism, in addition to thoughtful digital and print design. [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content