Film Review: The American Nurse

An initially impactful mission statement about a few of the nation’s millions of dedicated nurses, Carolyn Jones’s well-meaning dossier of a documentary remains frustratingly on the surface.

It’s an uncomfortable fact, but documentaries often depend on stars just as much as fiction films. In the case of Carolyn Jones’ quietly gleaming The American Nurse, there is no question that she’s found the right stars for her project. The half-dozen nurses profiled here present an impressive range of seemingly strong-willed and empathic caretakers. From the chirpy labor and delivery nurse at Johns Hopkins Hospital to the modest Kentuckian home-care nurse, the no-nonsense go-getter military nurse to the just-get-on-with-it nun, they are to a one precisely the kind of people you would want watching after a gravely ill family member.

The American Nurse cycles through interviews with its subjects at a leisurely pace, following them through their rounds and watching them care for patients. That can entail anything from checking in on an Iraq War veteran who lost an arm and a leg (as Brian McMillion does) to driving up a treacherously twisting and flooding mountain road to answer a home-care call (like Jason Short, a former roustabout and mechanic with the soft tones and iron will of Appalachia). In the case of Sister Stephen, an idealistic yet grounded nun at a livestock-heavy Wisconsin nursing home, it can mean bringing lambs and alpacas in for the residents to cuddle with. Later on, she counsels one of her critically ill residents, “If Jesus is calling, you go.”

Throughout the film, Jones captures numerous glinting moments of beauty and human tenderness. That is resoundingly true in the segments tracking Tonia Faust. A hospice nurse at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Faust supervises prisoner volunteers who do everything from reading to or even bathing their desperately ill fellow prisoners (who are many times murderers or rapists, just as they are).

A photographer and documentarian, Jones states at the start that she was inspired to work on this film after undergoing treatment for breast cancer and seeing the level of commitment and care that her nurse brought to her work. Jones says at the start that she wanted to answer the question, “What does nursing look like?” Choosing these six subjects out of the hundred-plus that she interviewed, Jones—who published a photograph essay book in 2012—does seem to have come close to answering part of that question. After all, she captures male and female nurses working everywhere from trailer-home bedrooms to operating rooms so high-tech they have a Kubrickian airlock quality to them.

But The American Nurse never ventures much past that surface impression. By the third time that Jones cycles through each of her six subjects, the film begins to feel discordantly randomized. By not burrowing into the gritty detail of the nurses’ duties or hearing nearly anything from their patients, the film misses an opportunity to illustrate the astoundingly broad knowledge and deep wells of compassion that each of them require to perform an even passable job. It’s a string of portraits in search of a theme.

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