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The American Nurse Is a Documentary About Genuine Human Decency Without Kitsch

Naomi Cross, a maternity ward nurse, on the right in The American Nurse.
Naomi Cross, a maternity ward nurse, on the right in The American Nurse.

With the form so often used to expose horrors, it's nice to see a documentary about genuine human decency without kitsch. Carolyn Jones's portrait of five medical caregivers walks us through day-in, day-out sacrifices without ever coming off as sentimental or aggrandizing.

"So many body fluids and so much screaming" is how Naomi Cross, a maternity ward nurse, describes her life. The visceral first scene, which follows Cross to the operating room as she assists with a Caesarian section, is wildly harrowing, but Cross strides through the ordeal like it's business as usual.

That introduces Jones's argument: Nurses are awesome not only for their medical proficiency — doctors have that, too — but for the extra, undefined part of their job that demands superhuman compassion in the face of all things icky.

The diversity of her subjects is impressive. In addition to Cross, who evokes sympathy as she divulges how she is still coping with her own miscarriage, Jones features a former Army medic who does rehabilitation work with fellow veterans, a Louisiana prison nurse who constantly faces the moral dilemmas of treating convicted killers, a nun who runs a nursing home in rural Wisconsin, and Jason Short, an auto-mechanic-turned-nurse who makes house calls to bedridden patients in Appalachia, plowing through rugged terrain with the stony-eyed determination of an action hero.

Aside from a brief introduction, Jones wisely remains silent, allowing her subjects to show their mettle. Watching these nurses confront our mortality in all its bloody, pussy, festering, and thoroughly unglamorous forms stirs new appreciation for the profession.

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