Our Take: 4/5 Stars
In the era of COVID-19, many are puzzled as to why a good half of the country continues to dismiss the severity of the pandemic and refuse to wear masks. Political pundits have postulated that this is a result of the restricted access to hospitals and healthcare facilities that reporters and major media outlets have dealt with, which has led to no accurate assessment of the true healthcare landscape.
One possible solution: give cameras to the healthcare workers on the frontlines. Tell the stories of those who lived through the uncertainty and fear of the pandemic first, starting in New York City.
The brainchild of New York Times Presents — a production company named for the newspaper of the same title — “They Get Brave” is a standalone documentary that aims to explain the essential stories of today. By all accounts, it delivers.
The 36-minute documentary manages to pack a surprising amount of narrative into such a short runtime. It follows the stories of five healthcare professionals as they film the havoc of the coronavirus in real time, alongside their own reactions and the personal sacrifices made in the process.
Over and over viewers see how the coronavirus has subtly made its way into the very fabric of American healthcare workers’ lives — when a nurse shoos away her dog instead of greeting her while walking in the door, or when a doctor’s daughter calmly draws her own rendition of the now ubiquitous image of the coronavirus during their time together.
The first few minutes of the documentary are presented as a chronological day-by-day recount of the initial outbreak in New York City, superimposed with audio from Governor Andrew Cuomo and broadcast news updates.
When the date, March 1, is displayed on the screen in passing, the viewer is struck by how the last several months have felt like several lifetimes. One of the strengths of the documentary is how it deliberately crosses the usual professional boundaries of journalism into personal territory. Instead of a 2-minute sound bite from an interview with a pulmonary specialist, the documentary invites viewers to watch as the story unfolds through its subjects’ lives. Again and again the viewer must witness the haunting anxiety of healthcare workers as they are hidden under a calm and collected demeanor in a clinical setting.
There are also personal and ethical dilemmas that America’s healthcare workers must face head-on: how can one properly grieve the suicide of a mentor from the stress of treating patients with coronavirus? Should one organize a demonstration against working under unsafe working conditions, at the expense of their future career? How can nurses ensure dignity in death, when bodies are being stacked in one refrigerated truck after another? And how does one begin writing a will for their child, in their early thirties?
These are all questions that these professionals wrestle with, exposing a new layer to the pandemic crisis that many sheltered at home would otherwise never imagine.
The sheer magnitude of the health crisis is another thing “They Get Brave” shines a light on: the proportionally few successes against a sea of deaths; the experience of Facetiming a loved one from a deathbed; the reality that this is not some apocalyptic crisis in a far away land. This pandemic is not analogous to public health crises in Laos, Kenya, or post-hurricane cholera in Haiti, ER physician Dr. Saleena Subaiya remarks, “That feels nothing like this…because we could go home.”
A catastrophe in plain sight is occurring all over the country.. “They Get Brave” is not so much entertainment as it is a sobering reality check, a blaring warning for the America of September, November, and December. The only issue with this documentary is the question of its audience, and whether it is likely that it will reach those who truly need to hear it.
“They Get Brave” offers an incisive and harrowing view into the daily lives of healthcare workers who faced the first coronavirus outbreak. As the virus continues to spread to other parts of the United States, the documentary offers a grave warning to those who continue to take the virus lightly, and humanizes the people working every day on the frontlines to save lives.
As one ICU nurse points out a mere four months ago, “All of this is so scary because it’s not even bad yet.” As public schools and universities start up again this month with cases still on the rise, we would do well to remember the vast unknown that still plagues us.
“They Get Brave” is available to stream now on Hulu.