Though set in the busy emergency room of Los Angeles County General Hospital, where the frenetic drama is at times reminiscent of the television series “ER,” the documentary “Code Black” is less about saving lives than it is about saving the American health-care system. That’s the most critical patient in this fascinating tale, which follows a group of idealistic residents in emergency medicine being trained in the hospital that, according to the film, gave birth to the modern E.R.
“Code Black’s” first-time director is one of those young trainees, physician Ryan McGarry, who interviewed his classmates and watched them work over the course of several years. Taking its title from the hospital’s in-house euphemism for “overwhelmed,” “Code Black” starts in 2008, before McGarry and his colleagues relocated to a new, state-of-the-art building.
As the staff leaves behind the chaos of the old, ill-equipped, facility, they still find themselves swamped — not just with sick people, but with paperwork. As one physician notes of the move, which took place in 2012, he now spends four times as many hours filling out forms as he does actually treating patients. Doctors at the old hospital were exempted from a lot of this work because of its obsolescent infrastructure.
Something is clearly wrong.
Yet the film isn’t a screed (against the Affordable Care Act or anything else, for that matter). McGarry presents a balanced, thoughtful and clear-eyed look at what, for many poor and uninsured people, is their only source of medical care: the public hospital. Though the film identifies no single culprit, its perspective on the nature of the dysfunction is clear. American health care is penny-wise but pound-foolish.
This viewpoint is summed up succinctly by a doctor who notes that thousands of dollars in emergency-room costs for, say, complications of diabetes might easily be avoided if someone were willing to pay for mere pennies’ worth of insulin a day.
This, of course, sounds like a prescription for what is often derided as “socialized” medicine. If preventative care were more affordable and widely available, the argument goes — and the cost spread out among all Americans — expensive critical services wouldn’t be the first recourse for so many patients. Nor would hospitals like this one be so swamped.
“Code Black” is a powerful and quietly damning film. While training his lens narrowly on the heroic workers in a single emergency department, McGarry has made a broad indictment of a system that is badly in need of surgery.
★ ★ ★ ½
Unrated. At the Angelika Pop-Up and Angelika Film Center Mosaic. Contains obscenity, nudity, images of bloody surgery and some drug references.