“What did you do at the moment when all around you lost their head?” Scary words, but appropriate for a scary time. The words are said shortly after the virus known as the Coronavirus is starting to pick up unfortunate steam, wrecking havoc into New York City and serving as the effective starting pistol for the pandemic.

Immediately, we get a cold realization of what this unseen thing is capable of, seeing the rapid activity rising in the Long Island Jewish Medical Center, where frontline healthcare workers are fearful as they deal in real time with a virus that doesn’t discriminate, but heavily highlights the chasm of economic and racial inequality.

About 41 minutes into the runtime of The First Wave documentary, we as a viewing audience are witnesses to a moment that is a pure combination of sadness, fear, disgust, and any other relevant adjective I failed to list. In this moment, a man who is in his last minutes of his life is defeated; eyes heavy, skin pale, breaths pained. He looks like death, but is still alive. It is almost like seeing George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead subjects in real life, except it is more frightening, knowing the knowledge that an invisible pathogen can reduce people to this sort of state in a span of days. Viewer discretion is definitely advised if viewing The First Wave.

Oscar-nominated director Matthew Heineman receives unprecedented and unbelievable access into the first days of the building crisis. While there is still a level of polish here from a composition and aesthetic sense, this is very much a raw and unfiltered look into a world a good chunk of us—unless we’ve sadly lost someone to this—have never seen. Heineman puts focus on a slim number of characters, the “main” one being Dr. Nathalie Dougé who talks openly and honestly about her journey into the field and her internal strife in taking care of whose who do not receive the same care back from the societal system known as the United States. However, the director chooses to eschew the traditional talking heads format. It’s a technique that seems to be employed in the genre of late, as it does put the predominant area of focus on the subject, or in this case, the ordeal.

The stories have been heard of hospitals being overrun and healthcare workers being mortified of providing care to virus carriers with the very real potential they themselves could become the next people on the hospital bed (one of the featured characters in the documentary is a nurse who is fighting COVID after an emergency c-section delivery), but it hits hard seeing these physicians, nurses, and other various employees have to manage and adjust in the new normal of personal protective equipment, being the bearers of bad news to families, and dealing with the immense stressors of their already intense jobs scaling exponentially.

The pandemic has shed light on many things many people chose to look the other way on for ages, one of the biggest of them being that nothing truly happens in a silo. Issac Newton once said that “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” The First Wave explores this. Feels like many years ago, but it wasn’t too long ago when the nation was rocked with the death of George Floyd in late May 2020. If COVID and the wrongful deaths of African-Americans happened in alternate universes in which the other never happens, they are still big events, but as they happened together, they are inextricably linked and simply part of a larger foundational issue. One, more overt (police brutality against minorities) and the other, more covert but no less impactful (minorities repeatedly lacking the support means in fighting ruinous diseases due to subpar living conditions and being looked at as the other).

I would totally understand anyone who would not be ready to give The First Wave a watch right now. It is a documentary that although ends on a fairly neutrally optimistic note, it is a consensually intrusive and sobering feature in a world that continues to be just that, often minus the consensually part. Perhaps its full impact will be felt and appreciated years down the line when there is more distance from the events we continue to be exposed to.


Photo credits go to IMDB.com, newsday.com, and collider.com.

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