The First Wave
Director/ Matthew Heineman
Watched on Hulu
Rating 2.5/5


This film is like comfort food for the pandemic-obsessed. There is a quiet serenity to its emergency room scenes, its close-ups on the faces of coronavirus patients, its brief cutaway montages of New York streets and masked inhabitants. The movie stakes out no new territory in the de rigueur of sanctioned doc filmmaking. There is the ensemble storytelling involving four revolving portraits of a nurse, a doctor, two patients and their families; the polished and unremarkable professionalism in image and sound; the upswell of ominous low-volume drone music, waiting in the wings after every transition for a respectable three or four seconds before making its entrance, the music signifying nothing more than the presence of a composer and the hand-holding emotionalism these soundtracks represent; and there is the predictable, satisfying three-act rhythms of each scene within the larger triumvirate arc of the 90-minute film.

After the prologue, in which a patient is first brought back to life on the operating table and then dies from sudden cardiac arrest, after all of the film’s forthcoming tropes and beats have been communicated to us, and the music crescendos before dilating to a suspended tonal note of fear and finality, followed by the obligatory drone shot of the Manhattan skyline and the film’s title card, and then the slow fade to black, I said to myself, “The very next shot will be a doctor in their apartment getting ready to go to work the next day.”

Which of course, it was.

I don’t say this to point out how savvy or–let’s say–cynical I am, I say it only to point out something so obvious and expected that we never question it, like the way we never question if our toast will be brown when it pops out of the toaster. Everything that happens in Matthew Heineman’s The First Wave is like another piece of toast, as if, yes, the movie was actually made by a toaster. Some of you may remember the DVD-making software called Toast, which was such a great name for what it did that it became shorthand for a client’s expectation that making a video or film was as simple as popping it out of a machine, which is what this film’s clients, National Geographic Films and Participant Media, expect as well: something pre-sold, edible and digestible, with mild grain and no exotic spreads. This is the state of corporate-financed  documentary filmmaking, and there is no shortage of bread.