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DOC NYC Film Review – ‘The First Wave’ Shows How COVID Transformed New York City

It’s difficult to be able to fully process the impact of something while still in it. As time goes on and cases continue to spread, the reality continues to set in that COVID-19 is here to stay, and society will need to evolve to account for its existence. Early on, however, that wasn’t as apparent, and the inundation of illness was startling at first and seemingly unprecedented in its scope and transmissibility. The First Wave chronicles the time between March and June 2020 when COVID battered its first major US target: New York City.

This harrowing documentary begins memorably in a hospital as a patient actively dies, conveying the severity of the situation and how, despite the ardent efforts of the entire staff, it wasn’t possible to save many patients. Nurses are seen holding tablets for those who can barely speak to be able to video chat with their loved ones who were not permitted to enter the hospital. The unpredictability of the disease and the often quick switch from stability to death weighs heavily on the staff, who want to provide comfort and reassurances to families but are honestly unsure of what will happen.

The First Wave
The First Wave / Credit: National Geographic

Governor Andrew Cuomo serves as a narrator of sorts for the film, never explicitly interviewed but featured repeatedly through video and audio clips of his daily briefings, championing the strength of New Yorkers but warning of the brutal power of the virus. It is somewhat jarring to hear Cuomo and see his words utilized in this way given recent developments that led to his resignation, but just as then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s stewardship of the Big Apple after the September 11th terrorist attacks cannot be forgotten despite his inexplicable behavior in the years since, Cuomo will forever be associated with New York’s response to the outbreak of a global pandemic.

The other theme given almost equal time to COVID is racial justice, as the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minnesota in May 2020 led to protests around the country. Due in part to the geographical nature of New York City’s streets, the initial setting for nightly rounds of applause for healthcare workers was quickly transformed into a space for marches demanding change and an acknowledgment of the right of people of color to live in spite of far too many examples of lives lost unnecessarily at the hands of law enforcement.

Seeing one of the healthcare workers featured take to the streets with a sign in her hand even while she was exhausting all of her energy at the hospital each day is especially stirring. The invocation of the phrase “I can’t breathe” has added meaning for her since it is also something she hears frequently from those who are suffering or intubated. History will surely remember the intersection of a great outpouring of advocacy for an end to systemic racism and the coronavirus pandemic, and this film shows just how interrelated the two are on both a personal and national level.

The First Wave
The First Wave / Credit: National Geographic

There is positivity to be found in this film, which makes sure to showcase the rarer instances of victory along with the miserable and heartbreaking moments where a happy ending just is not possible. The tradition of playing the Beatles song Here Comes the Sun when patients are taken off respirators is wonderful, and the release of a man who spent far too long in the care of his doctors and nurses is celebrated with thunderous applause from the entire staff as his family rushes over in tears to hug him for the first time.

The selection of The First Wave as the closing night film for DOC NYC feels decidedly appropriate given its nonfiction spotlight on the city that serves as host to the documentary festival. Director Matthew Heineman, whose previous works include Cartel Land and City of Ghosts, has created a time capsule that soberly memorializes those who lived and those who died during one of the darkest times in New York City’s modern history. There is no definitive ending to the narrative before the credits begin to roll, indicative of how New York – and the world – can never fully return to normal, especially since the pandemic continues to persist.

Grade: B+

The First Wave will screen in person and virtually at DOC NYC as its closing night film. NEON and National Geographic Documentary Films will release the film on Friday, November 19th.

Abe Friedtanzer
Abe Friedtanzerhttps://www.cinemadailyus.com
Abe Friedtanzer is a film and TV enthusiast who spent most of the past fifteen years in New York City. He has been the editor of MoviesWithAbe.com and TVwithAbe.com since 2007, and has been predicting the Oscars, Emmys, Golden Globes, and SAG Awards since he was allowed to stay up late enough to watch them. He has attended numerous film festivals including Sundance, Tribeca, and SXSW, and is a contributing writer for The Film Experience, Awards Radar, and AwardsWatch.


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