THE STORY – Documenting the harrowing first four months of COVID-19 with brave health care workers at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens, N.Y., as they risk their lives in the epic battle to keep the virus at bay.
THE CAST – N/A
THE TEAM – Matthew Heineman (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 94 Minutes
By Zoe Rose Bryant
It’s hard to believe that it’s been over a year and a half since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. In many ways, it feels like we’ve been living in this limbo forever – or, at the very least, we will be living in this limbo forever if society’s current sluggish recovery is any indication. And if we think it’s been tough, it’s practically impossible to fully place yourself in the perspective of the first responders who have been in the trenches with this terror since day one, shouldering the nation’s struggles and experiencing the full range of human emotion every time they clock in for work. That’s why Oscar-nominated documentarian Matthew Heineman set out to capture this chaos with unflinching candor in this year’s “The First Wave,” an unsettling but urgently necessary chronicle of the conditions in one of New York’s hardest-hit hospital systems during the frustrating first four months of the pandemic.
Following the lives of the staff at Queens’ Long Island Jewish Medical Center, “The First Wave” splits its runtime up between multiple storylines to give the audience a comprehensive analysis of the many lives touched by the virus in these trying conditions. One centers around Dr. Nathalie Dougé, who comments on how people of color are disproportionally affected by the pandemic and require additional assistance from the government that never comes. Another follows Alexis Ellis, a child life specialist and essential worker whose husband Ahmed, a 36-year-old NYPD school safety office officer, was hospitalized at Long Island for two months after contracting COVID-19. Additionally, one of the most tragic is the story of Brussels Jabon, a woman pregnant with her second child who became brutally ill and had to have an emergency C-section before being put on a ventilator. In totality, these cases just scratch the surface of the suffering in New York at the start of the pandemic.
At first glance, “The First Wave” may remind some of last year’s “76 Days,” a documentary following the battle to survive the spread of coronavirus in the early days of the outbreak in Wuhan, China. However, “The First Wave” makes these problems more personal by putting human faces to these fears and assessing their adversity with horrifying honesty. If you’ve seen that doc – or something similar – you’ll be forgiven for finding this painful peek back at the pandemic a tad familiar (or even, at times, a bit too much to bear, as the intensity increases and deathly dread deepens). Still, Heineman’s intimate immersion into one of the darkest periods in our planet’s history is too imperative a resource to ignore. His focus on personal, alarming anecdotes – a nurse having to call the loved ones of a patient who has recently passed and a family that may soon be without a father – gives the picture more emotional pull and makes it much harder to shake off. Even if we think we know what “things were like” back in March 2020, “The First Wave” illustrates that we genuinely have no clue.
The emphasis Heineman places on uncertainty is petrifying, underscoring just how little we were prepared for the pandemic and how many mistakes were made in those first few months as a result of our collective confusion. Honing in on doctors’ desperation via his cinema verité style, Heineman depicts this disorientation without any sense of artificiality whatsoever; he allows their authentic experiences to speak for themselves, with very little sensationalism to be found. Also of note is how well Heineman and his subjects draw a line from communities of color straining to survive coronavirus to the racial strife that also erupted in the middle of 2020, with the dual meaning behind “I can’t breathe” striking a sobering chord. When placing the pandemic in this larger context, it allows the audience to see how it’s not just a health issue, but an epidemic is exposing larger social inequities that have subsisted for far too long, disadvantaging millions while millions more turn a blind eye.
Though “The First Wave” never mentions Trump, his presence lingers over the film, and it makes the picture a powerfully political art piece, particularly when considering the lack of assistance hospitals across the nation had those first few months and the lies that were spread that still terrorize the populace today. As we watch Americans neglect to do their civic duty and get vaccinated to assist in putting this pandemic to rest, it makes the mayhem Heineman captures all the more maddening – and that much more tragic. The sorrow in each scene should never have to be endured again, but some still struggle to grasp just how horrendous the start of the pandemic was for those who couldn’t afford to be shielded from the worst woes. If nothing else, here’s hoping a film like “The First Wave” can be used as an educational tool to open people’s eyes once and for all by giving audiences even more profound respect for healthcare workers and simultaneously showcasing how close our divided society came to complete calamity.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – It’s an eye-opening and explosively urgent exposé of the horrors hospitals endured during the start of the pandemic, captured with captivating candor.
THE BAD – It can be a tad repetitive at times, and it verges on being too much to handle, but it thankfully never entirely crosses that line.