Working in an emergency room, where patients might be all but stacked on top of one another, the ability to zero in on crucial patient information, to extract essentials in order to make prioritizing assessments for treatment, can literally mean the difference between life or death. Director Ryan McGarry, who was senior resident physician at L.A. County Hospital when he made this absorbing documentary about its famed emergency room, brings that same skill set to his debut film.
Nowhere is that better illustrated than in a late segment in which his camera captures a middle-age woman hobbling into a wheelchair. In a span of a minute or so, he has the story of how her personal and professional life (she's a former lawyer) imploded and she's now living out of her car. The smile with which she first meets the camera crumples as she tearfully states, "I'm 58 years old. What am I gonna do?" L.A. County is the birthplace of emergency medicine as we know it, its ideals and practices, and continues to be ground zero in the healthcare crisis, as infants, gang members, indigent elderly, and the working poor flock there for treatment. Sketching in a rich historical overview while also clearing space for intimate portrayals of staff, the film is often graphic (it's not for the squeamish) and just as often very moving.
It helps that much of the staff is as photogenic as the cast of a TV medical drama, but what will pull viewers in is the empathy of the healthcare workers who battle to retain their idealism in the face of staggering obstacles.