Matthew Heineman’s The First Wave is an electrifying and urgent documentary that follows medical staff and patients during New York’s devastating first wave of COVID-19. Heineman, known for throwing himself into the heart of the action in films like Cartel Land and City of Ghosts, has crafted an intimate documentary that is a bombardment of overwhelming emotion and intensity but also ultimately uplifting and inspiring.
The film opens with a fast-paced scene of doctors frantically attempting to resuscitate a COVID patient as he inevitably succumbs to the virus. The frenetic activity stops, silence descends and a palpable wave of grief takes hold over the room, remaining for the film’s running time. Primarily following Doctor Nathalie Dougé and two COVID patients, NYPD cop Ahmed Davis and nurse Brussels Jabon, the film details the acute hardships for both patients, their families stuck helplessly at home and those tirelessly attending to them.
For many people the film’s pressingly urgent nature will be too hard-hitting and bleak, heart monitors flatlining are far too prevalent, but that’s Heineman’s intention: to throw us into the gut-wrenching world of those frontline workers and see the pandemic through their eyes. In one heartbreaking moment, Dougé breaks into a compassionate speech on the emotional toll the pandemic has had on medical staff. Equally, the film makes clear the debilitating nature of the virus itself, Ahmed unable to speak for the majority of the film, his wordless presence harrowing to watch.
The film makes clear the disproportionate effect the virus has had on minority communities, while also taking time to focus on the Black Lives Matter protests that gripped the city, and the world, following George Floyd’s murder in May last year. Dougé attends one such protest and the camera follows as her and an incandescent protester embrace in a poignant display of mutual grief and anger. The protesters’ cries of “I can’t breathe” particularly strike a nerve for Dougé, as something she heard far too often in the early, uncharted days of the pandemic – for her the link between COVID’s impact and historic black oppression is inextricable.
The desire for human connection, something felt universally throughout this pandemic, is undeniable here, with some of the film’s most upsetting scenes deriving from families’ inability to sit beside loved ones in their hour of need. Similarly, the human will to survive, and an innate human tendency to help and support one another, are at the forefront of the film, grounding it in a profound humanity. Thus, despite its onslaught of distressing scenes, perhaps Heineman’s greatest achievement is that The First Wave remains somewhat hopeful. Hopeful that strength and determination will prevail over darkness and hopeful that through that darkness we will come out stronger.
This review was written by Oli Gamble, member of the thatfilmbloguk team, American and Canadian Studies student, and co-host of the thatfilmbloguk podcast.