‘Code Black’: A spellbinding look into the E.R.

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By Claudia Puig/Gannett News Service

America’s busiest emergency room is nothing like “ER” or “Grey’s Anatomy.”

A look at the real thing makes for much more riveting — and graphic — viewing than the far more sanitized hospital TV shows.

“Code Black,” a fascinating documentary by emergency room doctor Ryan McGarry, profiles Los Angeles County+USC Medical Center’s trauma bay, known as C-Booth. It is the busiest ER in the country and also the birthplace of emergency medicine. (The term Code Black refers to a hospital that has reached or exceeded capacity.)

McGarry brings viewers into restricted zones in emergency operating rooms where, he explains, “more people have died and more people have been saved than in any other square footage in the United States.”

The precarious state of contemporary health care is shockingly evident. McGarry follows a team of idealistic, committed and unflappable medical residents.

In the wake of the crisis in health care, ER medicine is becoming increasingly essential. With their focus on trauma and open doors to all in need, emergency rooms offer a place where no one is turned away. In other words, it’s a haven for the uninsured, the working poor, the homeless or those suddenly jobless. The catastrophic scenarios are numerous. ER physicians are compelled to assume the role of psychiatrists, surgeons and any number of specialists.

Shot from 2008-2012, McGarry powerfully presents the situation, but offers no fixes for the complicated problems that have led to a broken health care system.

The most captivating moments are spent inside the ER. Interspersed with sequences of heightened tension, after-hours get-togethers at a local bar where residents unwind and express their frustrations are less compelling. (Though the doctors profiled are as strikingly attractive as any “Grey’s Anatomy” stars.)

A highly ambitious and spellbinding film, it’s an ideal companion piece to 2012’s “The Waiting Room,” a moving documentary about patients waiting for emergency care in a large public hospital in Oakland, California.

“Code Black” conveys the adrenaline rush and acute stress of an ER physician’s work, detailing the stories of how young doctors were drawn to a line of work that is lower-paying, lower status and often more grueling than most physicians’ jobs.

The film details infuriating bureaucratic hurdles in the form of endless paperwork, which translates to less time with acutely ill patients.

What makes the film so powerful is its insider’s perspective. Viewers are privy to scenes they could not possibly witness elsewhere. The crowded ER conditions look chaotic, but are surprisingly efficient. One of the most jarring visuals involves a crowd of doctors and nurses working mightily to save a dying patient, followed by a solitary janitor dispassionately mopping up blood. The doctors discuss how they handle breaking calamitous news to loved ones. ER physicians meet patients on often the worst day of their lives, McGarry points out. No matter how often they’ve seen it, these dedicated doctors are still keenly affected by suffering and death.

In the course of the five years McGarry was making his film, the cramped C-Booth closed to make way for a more expansive and updated trauma center, incorporating updated earthquake safety codes. The new hospital is not necessarily better, just bigger, cleaner and a bit more soulless.

Vitally important, urgent and sometimes heartbreaking, “Code Black” is consistently absorbing.

[s3r star=3.5/4]

Long Shot Factory presents a documentary directed by Ryan McGarry. Running time: 102 minutes. No MPAA rating). Opens Friday at the Music Box.

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