This documentary miniseries about the long-lived New York health facility has a captivating cast of doctor-characters.
Dr. Amanda Little-Richardson as seen in Neflix’s ‘Lenox Hill’
PHOTO:COURTESY OF NETFLIX 2020
By John Anderson June 9, 2020 4:03 pm ET
During the influenza pandemic of 1918, with Americans preoccupied by the Great War in Europe, the German Hospital on East 77th Street in New York was renamed Lenox Hill. Historically—as we learn during the miniseries of the same name—it was a “glorified community hospital,” a “little-old-lady hospital” where people were either born or died. Ask a lot of New Yorkers right now exactly where it is, and they probably couldn’t say.
“Lenox Hill” may not change that. But it deserves to. Directed by Israeli documentarians Ruthie Shatz and Adi Barash and executive produced with them by indie-film fixture Josh Braun, it is a singular piece of work about people, their work and the place in which those people do that work. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it is the people who make the difference, in every aspect of the story being told.
A parade of patients and physicians passes through “Lenox Hill,” but there are four principals: David Langer, who was brought on to found the neurosurgery department in 2013 shortly after the monolithic Northwell Health network took over the hospital; John Boockvar, the department’s vice chairman and Dr. Langer’s proudest “get” (“Who the f— leaves Cornell?” Dr. Langer says with what seems lingering wonderment); Mirtha Macri, an osteopath working the emergency room at the Lenox Hill outpost in Greenwich Village (the former St. Vincent’s); and Amanda Little-Richardson, the chief resident uptown in gynecology and obstetrics. They are charismatic people. Drs. Macri and Little-Richardson are both pregnant. The best way to describe them all is that you’d want them to be your doctors.
Fortunately for everyone involved, the eight-part series was completed in 2019, before the calamity of Covid-19 reached New York, but it could hardly have been made any later, and wouldn’t have worked if it had: The intent was not to capture the maelstrom that medical care can become during a catastrophe. It was about the edge it walks during normal times, and normal shifts. The first thing this viewer noticed, which feels like a confession, was how clean everything looked. This would be a good way of plugging a hospital. (“LH” would seem to be one big product placement, but Northwell takes a few hits for underfunding the place.) But by “clean,” I meannotphotographed in some guerrilla fashion meant to emulate the wild energy or chaos of a moment, but in almost classically framed, well-defined and generously illuminated shots that move through the action and stories with purpose. There’s enough going on without a lot of visual posturing, including a precisely modulated, virtually therapeutic score by Uri Frost.
Much of the action involves brain surgery, the specialty of Drs. Langer and Boockvar, which is the one area into which “Lenox Hill” takes a deep dive. (The scenes of childbirth, for instance, and certain matters in the ER are treated very discreetly, so the squeamish need not worry. Much.) What a viewer will be amazed by, and then forget because the action is so engrossing, is the kind of access Ms. Shatz and Mr. Barash achieved in order to shoot what they shot, including what is perhaps the most intimate procedure executed on a human body, the extraction of cancer from its brain. The directors have made medical series before (the Israeli “Ichilov” and “Ambulance”) and know the general terrain. But they couldn’t have foreseen how events would evolve—doctors themselves getting cancer, for instance—and the way they weave medical procedures together with the emotional histories, involvement and evolution of their characters is extraordinary. And extraordinarily involving.
One of the secrets to great documentary-making—and it’s not really a secret—is going where the story leads you. Given the nature of “Lenox Hill” this was not a huge problem; it’s not as if a pandemic erupted in the middle of shooting. But what the series also has is its great cast of characters—Drs. Langer, Boockvar, Macri and Little-Richardson are all so engaging, articulate and forthright that one wonders how many potential subjects fell by the wayside en route to directors Shatz and Barash arriving at their final four. What shouldn’t be ignored either is the cast of patients, who with astounding commitment to the project opened up their lives—and sometimes their skulls—to public scrutiny.
There are many smaller, magical moments in the film—Dr. Langer slipping his wedding ring back on following an operation, for instance, or two people whom the viewer has come to know intimately passing each other silently in a Lenox Hill hallway because one doesn’t know the other (because they haven’t seen the film!).
Not everything has a happy outcome, but the series is startlingly candid, especially about procedures and choices. Not everyone makes the decision you expect. One sweet-faced woman named Phyllis, 74, having already gone through brain-tumor treatment, is told she’s had a possible recurrence and what her options would be. No, no, no, she says: “It’s not worth it. I’m going to get myself a nice pill, so whenever that moment happens, happily I’ll say good night,” she says. “And I told my husband if he wants one, I’ll give him one, too, if he thinks he’ll miss me too much.” It’s chilling, especially in a show about medicine. But it’s also very human. And, like most of “Lenox Hill,” acutely honest.