The First Wave

Starring: A bunch of first responders and medical professionals who might have saved your life.

Directed By: Matthew Heineken

Where I Watched It; Hulu

English Audio Description Available?: No.

The Plot: Taking a rather voyeuristic approach to the beginning of the Covid pandemic, director Matthew Heineken makes a film that not just shows us what these hospitals and their staff were going through, but attempts to encapsulate that period of time for future generations.

What Works: Well, it’s hard to hate on a film that is largely celebratory of the hard working medical professionals who spend so many hours, days, weeks, months, and sadly even years, dealing with mitigating the effects of the Covid 19 pandemic in America. Unless you are one of those people who believes Covid isn’t real, in which case, it is 2022, and no one can help you. But, regardless of your stance on vaccinations or masking, this should be something we can all get behind. These people worked tirelessly and some even gave their lives in pursuit of saving others.

The reason why The First Wave *should* be the kind of film that anyone, regardless of political leanings, can get behind is that it avoids commentary. There is no narrator to follow along and tell you how you are supposed to be feeling, and the film is only manipulative through the editing process and which scenes Heineman decided to include. It is true that he probably has hundreds of hours of footage still somewhere, that he didn’t use, and you could deep dive into why these specific scenes, but they really are just somewhat largely inconsequential moments of storytelling.

Heineman basks in the mundane, or at least in highlighting what became your average everyday during the beginning of the pandemic. He’s not honing in on particular stories, interviewing families, and getting us too attached to any specific patients to pull out our hearts later. This is just a fly on the wall approach to capturing a part of our history, and doing so in what it wants as the most honest way possible.

What Doesn’t Work: Honestly, we are still in the pandemic. So watching a film about something that really was occurring less than two years ago, and the lingering truth is that we are still living it, feels just like a timing thing. In some ways, in his journey for honesty, Heineman also presents a somewhat unremarkable story we’ve seen before if we’ve been watching the news (or specifically news that acknowledges the existence of Covid). Making a film where we get a sustained more in depth look just feels too similar to so many other things I’ve already seen, from brief interviews on the nightly news, to special hour long reports on first responders. The truth is, while the individuals who are featured in this specific work are performing extraordinary feats for which they deserve all the praise, there really isn’t anything new being covered here.

Perhaps, given a few more years, and at least some distance between the pandemic and this film, we might have a bit more connection, and its possible that ten or twenty years from now, this could be a pinnacle of achievement in filmmaking for documentarians during the pandemic, but as it stands, it just has that all to similar feeling that you just saw this film last week, even if you didn’t.

The Blind Perspective: It’s not audio described, but a lot of the audio description would just be offering you names, and letting you know when someone on screen codes and dies. This film is a lot of people dying, and medical professionals having to notify loved ones over FaceTime, and exploring on how hard the entire setup is for all involved. It briefly reminds us that the Black Lives Matter movement happened during “The First Wave”, but it avoids directly commentating on it. There isn’t much here for visually impaired people. It’s just like listening to the news, without a reporter.

Final Thoughts: I don’t want to call this film outright unremarkable, because it only feels that way because we are so saturated with this kind of storytelling everyday. We are still living through this pandemic. As I write this, yesterday, over 1 million people tested positive for Covid just yesterday. And it’s true that there often are documentaries that are made while something is happening to open our eyes up to the truth, but often when that happens, there aren’t constant reminders all the time, and dozens of journalists and documentary filmmakers trying to do this exact same thing.

The First Wave does a lot of things right, and its biggest problems are things the film itself cannot control. It can’t help when National Geographic decides to release this film, though I believe it did manage to land on the Oscar short list, and it can’t help the saturation of similar material. It’s highly likely that more films like this will continue coming, and then we will look back and try and weigh each Covid film against another, trying to see which one did it best.

I appreciate what Heineman did here, and his approach. He made something that should be accessible to all. He just sat back and listened, and in a time when everyone is offering their own thoughts and commentary, sometimes just holding a camera and watching what happens can be the most effective approach. But for now, it’s hard to fully realize and grasp this films place in cinematic history, or even really if it is good or not, when we are still showing scenes that could substitute for additional scenes in The First Wave every night on the news.

Final Grade: I don’t usually skip this part, but I’m doing that here. My gut instinct is that rushing to judge this work right now, will not be truly representative of this films worth one way of the other. Is it just another Covid 19 special report, or did Heineman put together the perfect set of ingredients to make this the quintessential work representing this time in our lives? I just don’t know. Not today, anyway.

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