An E.R. portrait too true for TV
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, November 30, 2012
If I could choose one film to play in the White House screening room this year, it would be “The Waiting Room,” Peter Nicks’s magnificent documentary portrait of a hospital emergency room that eloquently portrays the faults and limitations of the American health care system, even as it punctures some of the most toxic stereotypes surrounding it.
Nicks, who attended Howard University and cut his storytelling teeth as a producer for ABC News, spent several weeks at Highland Hospital in Oakland, Calif., in 2010, culling hours of fly-on-the-wall footage to create a vivid day in the life of its state-of-the-art E.R. Following a handful of patients from lobby to discharge, observing the most intimate moments of their lives from behind the shoulders of doctors, nurses, social workers and administrators, Nicks brings viewers into a world every bit as involving, funny, gut-wrenching and tragic as any episode of “Grey’s Anatomy,” “House” or “Nurse Jackie.” With any justice, “The Waiting Room” will win just as a big an audience for its less sensationalized but even more compelling portrait of dedication and high-stakes drama.
Starting early in the morning, when patients begin to stream into Highland’s sunny lobby, “The Waiting Room” traces the story of several characters: a young girl brought in by a father worried by her sore throat and high fever; a middle-aged carpet layer plagued by painful bone spurs; a young man coping with a testicular diagnosis with the support of his girlfriend. As more and more people pour in, harried employees work like air traffic controllers, juggling admissions, discharges and empty beds. A handsome doctor worries that if he can’t find a bed for one patient, the patient will be cast out to the street; a tirelessly cheerful nurse takes the temperature of the girl with a sore throat (“You’ve got a whole radio station in there!”) and later chides a young man for using foul language (“You need to get a grip. Are you a Scorpio?”).
Nicks chooses not to share the names of his subjects in “The Waiting Room,” resulting in a tableau that feels as poetic and universal as a modern-day “Grapes of Wrath.” As they navigate an overburdened staff and swollen bureaucracy with dignity and good humor, the film’s protagonists represent a full spectrum of age, gender, race and class, their stories cutting through punitive rhetoric about “illegal immigration,” the “welfare state” and “broken families.” As we learn over scenes that Nicks edits with a canny sense of dramatic pacing, everyone has their own quietly astonishing story.
As painful as “The Waiting Room” can be to watch -- especially when young victims of gun violence come crashing through the doors -- it offers a surprisingly heartening view of a system that we often assume is mired in dysfunction and waste. The care at Highland clearly is first-rate, its practitioners maintaining equanimity and compassion even when the odd patient lets loose with a string of frustrated expletives.
Mostly, though, “The Waiting Room” is a portrait of people listening, whether patients are sharing their stories as they wait, or doctors and nurses are attending closely to yet one more tale of suffering, self-destruction or simple hard luck.
With grace, discretion and supreme tact, Nicks sweeps viewers to a climactic montage that wordlessly honors the best ways we care for one another. “The Waiting Room” bears poetic witness to an overlooked fact: America’s health care system may be broken, but its people are anything but.
Contains brief profanity and some difficult thematic material.