The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Covid documentary ‘The First Wave’ is a simultaneously vital and hard-to-watch time capsule

Physician Nathalie Dougé is featured in the documentary “The First Wave.” (National Geographic)
(3 stars)

For most people, other than first responders and health-care workers, it might have seemed crazy to choose to spend time in a New York hospital’s covid-19 ward between March and June of 2020, when the still-new virus was first roaring through that community. But that’s where the harrowing documentary “The First Wave” takes place, and where filmmaker Matthew Heineman and his crew embedded themselves to, as one of the film’s heroic hospital-worker subjects puts it, “look death in the eye.”

It might help to remember that Heineman, in service of his craft, is known for putting himself in harm’s way, deliberately, in such films as 2015’s “Cartel Land,” about the often-violent, cross-border U.S.-Mexican drug trade, and 2017’s “City of Ghosts,” set in the war-torn Syrian city of Raqqa.

Q&A: Filmmaker Matthew Heineman on ‘City of Ghosts’ and his affinity for picking (seemingly) futile battles

“The First Wave” opens, in fact, with the death of a covid patient at the Long Island Jewish Medical Center, and it’s an upsetting enough introduction to make some viewers wonder, right off the bat, exactly what they’re getting into by choosing to watch this film, at a time when the still-scary pandemic seems far from over, despite having retreated in some places, as vaccination has spread, and promising new antiviral regimens have been discovered. The film feels like a viscerally effective time capsule from the recent past, yet one whose arrival in theaters may still be too soon for many.

The mood however shifts, as its focus expands from Nathalie Dougé, a physician, and her often beleaguered colleagues to focus on the struggle of two seriously ill patients back from the brink of death. Heineman also incorporates their families’ stories into the larger narrative. And, when the protests over George Floyd’s killing break out in May 2020, the filmmaker widens his view even further. The disproportionate impact of covid on Black and immigrant communities becomes part of “The First Wave’s” larger story, and Dougé is seen carrying a handwritten cardboard sign: “Racism is a public health issue.”

Her message is clear: that White-on-Black police violence is part of a systemic problem that can be viewed through the same lens as the disparity between different groups’ access to health care.

Drone footage of protesters clashing with police in otherwise empty New York streets provide the film with some of its most powerful and emotionally affecting images, along with scenes of locked-down New Yorkers banging pots and pans from their apartment windows to thank front-line workers. A scene of a body bag being loaded into one of several refrigerated morgue trucks parked outside a hospital is one of the film’s most tormenting moments.

There is a narrative arc here that looks to signs of hope rather than to despair, particularly in the film’s third act. “The First Wave” feels simultaneously hard to watch and vital, tragic and uplifting, like a backward glimpse over our shoulder at a period of conflict and struggle — in more ways than one — that we’re not quite done living through yet.

R. At Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema. Contains some strong language and disturbing images. 93 minutes.