We all lived through it: The first shocking scenes of COVID-19 growing from an inconsequential “Chinese flu” to a devastating killer of millions across the globe. In the U.S., we first noticed one or two cases here and there – nothing to be concerned about. And then COVID-19 burst into the news as New York City suddenly became the epicenter of the mysterious virus, a pandemic which everyone thought would soon be history. Even if you think that you’ve already seen it all, THE FIRST WAVE will introduce you to events that will add to your understanding and may even shock you.
Oscar-nominated and Emmy award-winning director Matthew Heineman hoped to document the crippling effects of this new disease by following its progression in the city where it first caught the nation’s undivided attention. And so a full film company led by Heineman entered the medical corridors of several NYC hospitals from March to June 2020 to explore what happened and how people responded to this novel illness as it raged through the most populous city in the U.S. Little did we know that this would become one of the worst pandemics in U.S. history. But THE FIRST WAVE is not simply about a medical catastrophe which struck the population without warning to wreak havoc almost overnight on medical systems throughout the world. THE FIRST WAVE also explores the people – medical professionals, victims of the newest plague, family members, and all of us as we watched the daily events unfolding on a television screen. This is a story about how individuals handled the overwhelming trail of death and despair in this once-in-a-century viral pandemic.
To bring home the tragedy inherent in such a deadly crisis, Heineman focused on a few individuals who lived through the crisis – a physician, a physical therapist, a few victims who hovered on the brink of death – some would survive and others would die. The story of COVID-19 in NYC became the story of an entire country forced to endure a sickness which never seems to end. Each distinct storyline serves as a microcosm through which we view the emotional and societal impacts of the destructive pandemic.
THE FIRST WAVE also touches upon things going on in society at the very same time. The Black Lives Matter movement surged as the death toll in hospitals climbed to obscene levels and refrigerated trucks were brought in to hold the dead. During this terrifying and calamitous time, the people of NYC, even though sequestered, personified the strength of the human spirit as they leaned from their windows and balconies shouting their encouragement to everyone within hearing distance. Heroism flourished too as bedraggled and overtired hospital workers struggled to keep one step ahead of the tragedies unfolding daily.
Following a screening of the film, Heineman spoke of the power, love, and heroism he witnessed as his crew filmed hundreds of hours while NYC fought to survive. Miraculously, even though no one yet understood much about COVID-19 and how it was transmitted or effectively treated, not one member of his team caught the deadly virus. And two of the very seriously ill – an NYPD worker and a young nurse – survived after months on a ventilator, offering an ending with a spark of hope. THE FIRST WAVE was filmed in the spring of 2020 – and no one suspected that even now, as 2021 is coming to a close, COVID-19 would remain a deadly threat everywhere.
THE FIRST WAVE was released on November 19, 2021, and remains timely and engrossing. The National Geographic documentary is above all personal with an undercurrent of compassion but also painful honesty. Kudos to Heineman for spearheading the movie and to the editor who plowed through miles of film to skillfully capture so many meaningful moments. Like the once-in-a-century pandemic, this is a once-in-a-century film which everyone should see.