Tension-courting television dramas like ER and House paint a high-stakes portrait of hospital life with their endless parade of grisly traumas, histrionic emotions and taut cliffhangers designed to lure viewers back after each commercial break. Documentarian Peter Nicks gives us the grimly monotonous reality in his accomplished behind-the-scenes portrait of Highland Hospital in Oakland, California. The facility certainly sees its fair share of adrenalizing life-or-death cases. But the more prevalent vibes are uncertainty and frustration, brought on by the high volume of patients who are in less immediately dire circumstances.
Nicks’s camera floats through the hospital’s fluorescent-lit waiting room, eavesdropping on impatient and anxious conversations between people who almost all lack health insurance. (A good-natured admitting nurse somehow keeps the simmering intensity from boiling over.) We spend an equal amount of time in the physicians’ wing, where technicians soberly discuss triage with doctors who barely seem to be keeping it together as they try to move their charges through a ridiculously complicated system.
Nicks has clearly studied fellow documentarian Frederick Wiseman’s institutional chronicles: There’s an equal sense of horror in watching a chronic back-pain sufferer stress over his ability to pay a bill as there is in observing the body of a recently deceased 15-year-old getting wheeled into the hospital’s freezer. But the doc’s scope feels a bit small overall—more concerned with capturing the episodic adventures of these disparate subjects than with connecting their experiences to larger societal ills.
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