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Movie review: 'Code Black' pushes for change without offering solutions

Code Black

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Sometimes graphic and tough to watch, the documentary Code Black (which opened Friday) pulls back the curtain and exposes life inside an emergency room. But while underfunded ERs bogged down with regulations is a serious issue in our country, the film has a hard time offering up any solutions, instead choosing to restate the problem over and over.

"Code Black."
"Code Black."Photo courtesy of Long Shot Factory, 2014. Used with permission.

Writer and Director Ryan McGarry is an ER doctor himself, a member of the Los Angeles County Hospital, which we are told is one of the few hospitals in the country that doesn't turn people away. The drawback of this humane approach to health care is that sometimes patients wait up to 24 hours to see a doctor.

We are shown some history on what was known as a famous ER operating room, a ground zero of sorts that has been shut down in favor of new medical facilities across the street. At this old location, chaos reigned, but in a controlled environment where a patient's health was priority number one and where teams of young, ambitious doctors were given the freedom to do their thing. The film describes this location as the single place on Earth where more lives have been saved, and lost.

But over time and several federal regulations later, McGarry and his fellow physicians find themselves still on the front line of the health care debate, but swimming in a sea of red tape, trying to navigate the many bureaucratic roadblocks placed in front of them. Care is suffering, and this film means to not only raise awareness, but to hopefully get our priorities back in order.

McGarry's personal attachment to the topic helps and hurts the film. On one hand it is riveting to see what these doctors go through every day at "work," where their performance is the difference between life and death for many. Being so close to the front line himself, the film also is able to stay politically neutral for the most part. However a wider lens may have been helpful for us viewers not currently fluent in the ways health care works, how things are connected, and more importantly, what the hell can be done about the issues these doctors are facing. Documentaries that outline a problem but not a solution, no matter the subject, tend to come across more as bickering than real advocacy. Even if we get fired up after watching, what is it that we can do to affect change?

Code Black has a hard time offering up anything new, even when it is effective in describing the problem.

Genre: Docuementary

Run Time: 1 hour 18 minutes, Not Rated

Directed by Ryan McGarry (feature-film directorial debut)

Opens locally on Friday, Aug 22, 2014 (check for show times).

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How to read Tom Santilli's "Star Ratings:"

  • 5 Stars: Exceptional, must-see movie
  • 4 Stars: Very good movie, not without flaws
  • 3 Stars: The movie was just OK, leaves a lot to be desired
  • 2 Stars: Pretty bad, a let-down, disappointing, but with some redeeming qualities
  • 1 Star: Awful, sloppy, a total waste of time