Over a black screen a police radio call reports a 21-year-old male suffering multiple gunshot wounds. A helicopter lands and a gurney rushes a body into a Dantesque emergency room. A mob rushes about, helter skelter; a contingent stands back observing studiously; and surgically garbed people shunt the wounded man onto a table to be carved up like a butchered steer. It’s in vain. The time of death is recorded, and a janitor mops up the blood.
This is the Los Angeles County Hospital’s Emergency Department, the legendary “C-booth,” a trauma unit the size of a studio apartment, back in the good old days, before the old hospital was replaced by a slick new facility. And this isn’t even Code Black — that’s the worst-case scenario, with grievously wounded and sick people laid out wall-to-wall. It’s like the aftermath of a car bombing, or a particularly gruesome scene in Robert Altman’s “M*A*S*H.”
In his debut feature, “Code Black” director Ryan McGarry, himself a former member of the C-booth team, gives those fascinated by TV shows like “ER” or Discovery Channel programs on extreme medicine all they want, and more. But those looking for coherent insight into the state of the American health system might not be satisfied. McGarry excels in depicting the microcosm, but his focus wanders when he ponders the big picture.
He acutely profiles the young residents who work in the unit, and allows them to candidly discuss their sometimes mixed ideals and motives for taking on such a low-paying, labor-intensive, endlessly stressful assignment. Some are turned on by the adrenaline, the life-or-death stakes, and an intense camaraderie like that of soldiers in combat. One even compares work in C-booth to his experience mountain climbing. But all believe that the purpose of the medical profession is to reduce human suffering, and not just to make a lot of money. That’s what they get here, because the LA County Hospital is one of the few in the country where the uninsured and impoverished can receive excellent treatment for free, though they might have to wait 18 hours to get it.
Ironically, these patients, though they are the reason for the unit’s existence, get short shrift in “Code Black.” Only a few speak – particularly chilling and illuminating is an elegant, once wealthy woman who breaks down in tears as she talks about sleeping in her car. For the most part, the patients appear in montages of blurry action, bloody procedures, and a never-empty waiting room.
McGarry’s analysis of the causes of the crisis also lacks focus. Obamacare gets reduced to a few sound-bites from cable news, with no discussion about whether the program helps or aggravates the problem. One physician, pondering a diabetic man’s swollen, suppurating foot, suggests that if the government invested a few dollars in giving people medicines like insulin, it could avoid spending thousands later on drastic procedures. But this theme remains unexplored.
It’s not like the good old days when C-booth got the job done despite limited resources. More people have died in that small space than at any other place in the country, a doctor says on camera. On the brighter side, he adds, more people were saved there, too. “Code Black” shows the passion, frustration, and skill of those who work to heal despite the system, but it remains in the dark about why that system is broken and how it can be fixed.