A wave of COVID-19 related documentaries were all but inevitable. It’s understandable. There wasn’t a country left unscathed by the global pandemic that’s presence is still being felt. And you can bet there are powerful, heartbreaking, and even inspiring stories from all across the planet waiting to be told.
In the United States, New York City would quickly become the epicenter for COVID-19. The city’s first wave began in March 2020 and lasted through June of that year. The fittingly titled “The First Wave” chronicles those four devastating months, mostly from the perspectives of front-line healthcare workers, but also from family members who had loved ones in hospitals, stricken by the virus and fighting for their lives.
This at times crushing documentary is directed by Matthew Heineman who was given astonishing on-the-scene access to hospital emergency rooms and makeshift COVID wards as they rapidly filled every bed with infected patients. We see doctors and nurses overwhelmed by the stress yet steadfast in their determination to save as many lives as possible. We see people struggle to breathe and we see people die. We see families speaking to their loved ones over FaceTime because they can’t be with them in the hospital. We also see doctors calling families, delivering the terrible news that their loved ones have died. This is heavy stuff.
A big chunk of the film was shot at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens. We spend time with the medical workers like Dr. Nathalie Dougé, an internist at Northwell Health, and Kellie Wunsch, an ICU nurse who share the stress of not knowing what they’re dealing with while also showing their resolve when it comes to helping their patients. Watching them sprint down hallways as another person codes is nothing short of harrowing.
Just as powerful are the patients we’re introduced to – people infected and literally fighting for their lives. We meet a man named George, surrounded by doctors as he struggles to breathe. A nurse holds up his cell phone wrapped inside a ziplock bag. On the screen is his family expressing their love and encouraging him to “be strong”. George tells them he loves them too. It’s the last time they will speak. Minutes later we watch him die, an early victim of a virus that has claimed the lives of nearly 60,000 New Yorkers.
We also meet 35-year-old Ahmed Ellis, a School Safety Officer with the NYPD. He’s married and a father of two beautiful children. Due to highly contagious nature of the virus, Ahmed’s wife Alexis can’t be with her husband. So she waits at home for the next call from the hospital, hoping there will be good news on the other end of the line.
While most of the film maintains its focus, Heineman does wander off the trail a bit in the second half. He steps away from the patients to show the massive protests that followed the senseless killing of George Floyd. To be fair, Heineman tries to make a deeper connection between the protests and the pandemic. But this segment still feels yanked from a different film. To his credit, Heineman doesn’t stay away from the hospitals for very long.
Looking back, “The First Wave” doesn’t have the benefit of hindsight as we do now. So while Governor Andrew Cuomo is seen several times in the movie, nothing is said about his ill-advised nursing home decision (that was actually issued during the time this documentary covers). And of course it doesn’t mention his attempts to cover up the true death toll that resulted (something that fully came to light after the documentary was completed).
But honestly, that’s a good thing. It allows Heineman to concentrate, not on the politicians and talking heads, but on those essential workers who valiantly stood in the trenches against an undefinable threat. It lets us focus on the people and the families who suffered so much in those devastating early days. It all makes for a piercing experience. One that I can see impacting generations with its clear-eyed perspective on that terrible first wave.