Film Review: The First Patient

There’s little lurking beneath the gruesome exterior of Chip Duncan’s documentary about human anatomy dissection.
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There’s a reason The First Patient begins with a disclaimer about its forthcoming imagery: Chip Duncan’s documentary is awash in human dissections that are apt to turn even the strongest of stomachs. That gruesome material would be tolerable were it married to an illuminating portrait of the time-honed practice, here undertaken by students at the Mayo Clinic School of Medicine. Alas, Duncan’s film is at once obvious and repetitive, ably depicting the in-depth study required to be a doctor and yet failing to convey anything that isn’t readily apparent–including the sheer unpleasantness of seeing deceased men and women carved up for scientific inquiry.
Like the diverse students who are its focus, The First Patient is intensely respectful of that procedure. However, what its speakers have to say about it is of a routine nature. Cadavers smell really bad. Dissecting them provides a hands-on experience that’s invaluable to understanding how we tick. Investigating bodies takes an emotional, psychological and physical toll on practitioners. Such an endeavor invariably inspires consideration about spiritual questions regarding the soul. Anatomy training is a vital tool for medical advances and helps aspiring doctors learn to think about the Big Picture even as they focus on the micro elements of biology. And such work, as almost everyone articulates at one point, reveals the “beautiful” nature of human hands, organs, faces and brains.
Duncan provides some early quick-hit biographical background on his well-spoken subjects, which highlights their distinctive stories while simultaneously revealing that, for many, brushes with death–be it with regards to friends, family members or military service–were the prime motivation for choosing this professional path. Those early tidbits, though, are predominantly unrelated to the ensuing action, which follows these individuals as they scrub and scrape at facial tissue, pull and peel skin and muscle, slice and saw through bone, and wash and manipulate hearts. In those passages, what the film tells us is mostly what we already know–namely, that this is an intensely trying and fascinating method of study that provides great benefits for those entering this field– while showing us what we likely don’t really want to see in up-close-and-personal detail.
As a window into this highly particular world, where aspiring doctors do things to bodies that would be unacceptable in any other context, The First Patient successfully validates anatomy education (as if it needed validation in the first place), but falters in making any sort of larger point. That’s clearest during a final scene marked by snippets of voiceover clichés about what the students have taken away from their time with their cadavers. We’re all the same inside! Donating bodies to science means your life has purpose even after death! We’re all a collection of chemicals! As with the brief sequences that touch upon questions of beauty, religion and art as it relates to dissection, as well as the innumerable and increasingly intolerable time-lapse sequences and fast-forward montages that aim to gussy up the proceedings, it’s a conclusion that underscores this non-fiction film’s two-dimensionality.