Code Black is not for the squeamish, in more ways than one. Even if you’re indifferent to the sight of a trauma patient’s belly being scalpeled open under the bright lights and probing hands of doctors crowded around an emergency room bed, Ryan McGarry’s documentary is upsetting in the ways it shows a health-care system that itself is on life support.
Blond, personable and with firsthand experience of the agonies of being a patient (he battled lymphoma as a teen), filmmaker McGarry is also one of the film’s subjects. He’s a doctor himself, and he turns his camera on his last years in med school as a senior resident at Los Angeles County Hospital’s ER.
A central contrast is drawn between Old County, the stately Art Deco edifice where emergency room practices were largely developed in the United States, and New County, the facility recently built to meet state-of-the-art medical needs. Old County is exemplified by C-Booth, the cramped, three-bed, chaotic heart of the emergency ward, where the most imperiled patients get all-hands-on-deck treatment. (It’s the location of that belly-slicing scene.) New County is sleek, gleaming and sterile. It embodies the impersonalized nature of contemporary health care, with doctors and patients separated by rigid bureaucracy and countless forms designed to keep malpractice suits at bay.
Example: As the camera follows him through the hospital halls, McGarry points out that, 30 minutes into his shift, he has spent only two minutes with patients. The rest of the time is swallowed up by filing paperwork and repeatedly logging into the hospital’s computer system.
The film focuses on McGarry and his fellow young doctors’ commitment, the adrenalin rush of trying to save lives on unforgiving deadlines, and on their frustration with a system that has placed legal and economic considerations ahead of the physician-patient relationship.
It also touches on the thin line between solvency and poverty in our society, when the loss of one paycheck can spell disaster. Yes, an ER is often filled largely with the indigent, or anyone who can’t afford health insurance. But that demographic is widening. Code Black features an interview with an elegant, 58-year-old attorney facing the abyss. In the wake of embezzlement, her practice is ruined. Though to all appearances she seems to be a put-together professional, she finds herself living in her car with no idea how to rebuild her life.
Director-doctor McGarry briefly touches on politics and the conflict over the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). But he thinks the push-and-pull between Democrats and Republicans ultimately is a waste of time. “At some point, it’s just about doing the right thing for somebody,” he says. It’s a motivation shared by the ER colleagues he includes in the film. Their embattled idealism is impressive. “This is where you get to work twice as hard at half price,” one of them says, proudly.
Perhaps the most moving scene here is a moment of deep silence that follows in the wake of the ER’s usual hubbub of shouted commands and beeping machines. It’s the silence honoring the death of a patient these doctors could not save. We see how their grief binds them together — until the next crisis begins.
The messy, blood-splattered realism of Code Black makes The Last of Robin Hood, by comparison, seem especially fake. On paper, this dramatization of Errol Flynn’s final days seems dynamite — the tale of his final fling with one of the many barely legal (or not legal at all) girls, lifelong proof that he couldn’t keep his swash buckled up. His taste for nubile flesh landed the actor in court for statutory rape and earned him a place in American vernacular (that’s where “in like Flynn” comes from).
This sounds like a perfect role for Kevin Kline, an old-school rascal from way back (or at least as far back as 1981’s Broadway revival of The Pirates of Penzance). Dakota Fanning seems ideal as his last teenage lover, Beverly Aadland. Likewise, Susan Sarandon is always welcome, here playing Bev’s mom Florence. But goodness, the whole thing is DOA.
Brightly lit like a Lifetime movie, Last of Robin Hood feels cheap and secondhand. The actors seem to enjoy sharing scenes together, but there’s no real sense of commitment beyond just walking through their roles. Kline vacillates between charming and skeezy, but he hardly seems like “a walking penis,” as one character describes Flynn. The script is perfunctory when it isn’t clumsy and shopworn. (“What are you, my parent?” Beverly snaps when Errol tries to lay down some ground rules.)
Considering the salacious potential of the material, the movie is weirdly free of conflict or tension. And it refuses to take a point of view. Is Sarandon’s Florence really a knowing schemer, pimping her daughter out, or is she, as she claims, really unaware of what’s going down in Flynn’s bedroom? And though we see the actor trying to browbeat Stanley Kubrick (Max Casella) into casting him and Beverly as Humbert Humbert and his tween inamorata, Fanning seems less a Lolita-like nymphet than a normal, nice, slightly boring schoolgirl. (There is a hint of self-consciousness in Fanning’s performance, notable only because her work has always been distinguished by its absence.)
Last of Robin Hood isn’t a disaster; a disaster happens when people try too hard and fail. Nobody here seems to be interested in doing much more than getting through the thing with basic professionalism. You find yourself forgetting the movie even as you’re watching it.
Code Black. A documentary directed by Ryan McGarry. 78 minutes. At Lefont Sandy Springs.
The Last of Robin Hood. With Kevin Kline, Dakota Fanning, Susan Sarandon. Directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland. Rated R. 94 minutes. At Lefont Sandy Springs.