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Originally published Thursday, July 24, 2014 at 3:06 PM

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‘Code Black’: a heart-stopping look at an ER

A review of “Code Black,” a harrowing look at the understaffed, overutilized L.A. County Hospital emergency room. 3 stars out of 4.


Seattle Times movie critic

Movie Review ★★★  

‘Code Black,’ a documentary directed by Ryan McGarry. 80 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences (contains graphic emergency-room footage). Sundance Cinemas.

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Like last year’s fine documentary “The Waiting Room,” but more from a doctor’s point of view, “Code Black” takes place in the emergency room of a California public hospital. “If you’re an outsider, this looks like total chaos,” a voice tells us early on, as we watch swarms of ER personnel descend on gurneyed patients.

That voice is no outsider; it’s Dr. Ryan McGarry, an emergency-room physician who directed this film while working as a resident at Los Angeles County Hospital, and who serves as our guide through the film and the chaos. We meet idealistic young doctors frustrated by the limitations of their job; watch as patients are unceremoniously sliced open (there’s more blood here than in most horror movies); and listen as a family member sobs behind a closed door, for a loved one too quickly gone.

“Code Black” (the title is a phrase referring to a jammed-full ER waiting room; a seemingly constant state at L.A. County) presents itself as a demonstration of the current crisis in health care, and it’s hard to watch without becoming enraged. Patients wait, in some cases, more than 12 hours to be seen; some are turned away from private hospitals due to lack of insurance. A shortage of nurses means more waiting, and a crush of mandated paperwork keeps physicians from bedsides.

Though the film’s parade of talking-head doctors occasionally gets a bit repetitive, and its graphic ER footage made me wonder about patient privacy, “Code Black” is nonetheless powerful and moving; a tribute to devoted health-care professionals, doing their job within the chaos, as best they can.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com



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