The American Nurse: Film Review

The American Nurse Still - H 2014

The American Nurse Still - H 2014

Admiring but not puffy doc celebrates caregivers.

Carolyn James introduces five very different perspectives on contemporary nursing.

A documentary about caregiving that leapfrogs political debate to pay respect to those who spend more time than anyone with the sick, Carolyn JonesThe American Nurse follows five subjects whose specialties set them apart from what many viewers may expect from the word "nurse." A compassionate and psychologically revealing doc, it has limited commercial appeal but would be very useful in educational settings; limited theatrical bookings are tied to National Nurses Week.

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Jones introduces the film with a brief first-person thesis statement — "I thought a nurse was a nurse … and then I got breast cancer" — but stays out of the spotlight for the rest of the film, introducing subjects who work in far-flung settings. Jason Short is a former mechanic now helping bedridden patients in their homes in Appalachia; Sister Stephen raises farm animals to use in therapy with elderly residents at a nursing home.

Brian McMillion, a former Army medic, draws on traumatic experiences in Panama as he identifies with vets who've been disabled in combat, while Tonia Faust tries to ignore the pasts of the prisoners she cares for at the Louisiana State Penitentiary's hospice in Angola. Only Baltimore's Naomi Cross has the expected hospital-bound job, working in delivery rooms to help pregnant women through labor and surgical childbirth.

Jones isn't shy about the sometimes gruesome parts of these jobs — we see bits of a Caesarean section and watch as Short clears the clogged port for a colostomy bag — but her main focus is on the broader challenges presented by life as a caregiver. Cycling through her interviewees, she eventually finds ways in which each person's personal experience led to this career. Some of the stories are quite moving, and in many cases the act of all but giving one's entire life to this underpaid profession seems to have satisfied a deep emotional need.

The film essentially ignores the political and financial realities of the American health care system, making it accessible not only to Americans of any philosophical stripe but, its title notwithstanding, to viewers in other countries. If the nation transformed into a single-payer utopia overnight, or if Republicans somehow managed to wipe Obamacare out of existence, many of this film's emotional observations would still hold true.

Production: Carolyn Jones Productions

Director: Carolyn Jones

Producer: Lisa Frank

Executive producer: Carolyn Jones

Director of photography: Jaka Vinsek

Editors: Steve Heffner, Isabel Sadurni

Music: Hayes Greenfield

No rating, 78 minutes