A television documentary about rebirth gives new life to the television documentary tonight. "The Gift of Life," a CBS News production airing at 10 on Channel 9, is as riveting and fascinating as the most brilliantly made piece of fiction, yet it has the gift of truth. Documentaries are dying as a form of programming, but hours like this could save them.
Bill Kurtis of "The CBS Morning News" is the able host and narrator for the program, which looks at the entire mysterious field of transplantation, the recently developed medical science of replacing a failing human organ with a healthy one from a donor. Transplant stories may begin in tragedy -- the donor has died suddenly -- but they end in what still seems miraculous.
"We think after this broadcast you'll understand the pain and the wonder of the gift of life," Kurtis says near the opening of the program, and we do, we do. The film looks at the actual surgical process, and how it works, and at the plight of those who wait for donor organs that may or may not arrive. Washington-based filmmakers Paul and Holly Fine, who made "The Plane That Fell From the Sky," spent a year following a 34-year-old Reading, Pa., man around while he waited for a liver.
This man, named Al, is too weak to lift his own children but is told by doctors his condition is not "critical" enough to warrant high priority on the "active list." During an interview with Al, Kurtis mentions that he lost his own wife to cancer: "To the very end, you think you are the exception." It's unusual for a correspondent to make this kind of personal remark, but it fits the program. It is the sort of touch that distinguishes "Life" from the usual dull documentary and also distinguishes Kurtis from your average correspondent. He is a true asset to this broadcast and, though some in management positions seem not to know it, to CBS News as well.
Eventually Al will get his operation. The camera records such intimate moments as a discussion between the husband and wife about possibly aborting an expected child, and, later, the wife's anxious vigil in the waiting room as her husband undergoes transplant surgery. After 32 hours in the operating room, Al is, in part, a new man. The cliche'd expression on a get-well card hung above his bed has an unmistakable veracity: "Today is the first day of the rest of your life."
The Fines filmed the surgery -- the first time for a liver transplant operation -- and there was some trepidation within CBS about showing it, but even squeamish viewers are likely to be overcome more with amazement than queasiness.
Earlier, the progress of a heart from donor to recipient is charted. Surgeons pop the heart out and plop it into a punch bowl. It is chilled and placed into a plain old picnic cooler, then flown off to another hospital and, once there, installed in the waiting recipient. And then, rather suddenly, we see it begin to beat. "It is," says Kurtis, "a terrifying and wonderful sight."
The program is perhaps too bluntly a recruitment poster for donorism, urging viewers to carry donor cards so that at some propitious moment, should they collapse in a heap, certain of their organs can be Federal Expressed hither and thither. "Being a donor is not an easy decision, but it could be the most important gift you will ever give, or receive," Kurtis says. It is unseemly in a documentary to refer to the viewer as "you," and to urge action; that sounds like "20/20." There is also a bit of gung-ho cheerleading for the medical profession, recalling those "Body Human" specials in which doctors were always fearless heroes.
But the program does show the anguished side of the transplant story, like the kids who wait at Children's Hospital in Washington for livers and kidneys that may or may not ever come. One 12-year-old named Spencer finally gets his kidney but then, as can still happen, there are complications, the body rejects it, and he has to go back on dialysis and wait again.
What the program is saying about the survival of TV documentaries is almost as important as what it says about transplants. Why should viewers care whether the TV documentary lives or dies? Because without longer-form informational programs, TV news becomes nothing but bite-size morsels, News McNuggets. TV's accelerated pandering to the short attention span means viewing becomes all appetizers, no meal; all titillation, no fulfilment. Paul and Holly Fine may save the documentary by reinventing it. They are among the very brightest stars in all of network news.
There are many subjects that simply cannot be covered in two minutes. What the Fines are trying to do is revitalize the documentary by departing from stale flat formulas. Paul Fine says he wants to get away from the old "parade of experts" approach, where all a viewer sees are spokesmen and authorities and the occasional correspondent walking down a street while he jabbers to the camera.
Fine says he caught a recent documentary on another network "and it was just head after head of experts. No wonder nobody watches these things." People are going to watch "The Gift of Life." They're going to watch, and they're really going to see something: a great program and the rebirth, or at least temporary rejuvenation, of the TV documentary.