#381) Hospital (1970)


#381) Hospital (1970)

OR “NET Work”

Directed by Frederick Wiseman

Class of 1994

The Plot: After examining a Massachusetts mental institution, a Philadelphia high school, and the Kansas City Police Department, Fredrick Wiseman turns his direct cinema eye towards New York City’s Metropolitan Hospital. The doctors and nurses of this East Harlem establishment face a never-ending array of alcoholics, heroin addicts, abandoned children, poor families who cannot afford treatment, and everything in between. All this brought to you by the National Educational Television network, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and contributions from viewers like you. Thank you.

Why It Matters: While the NFR description only gives a brief rundown, the accompanying essay by film professor Barry Keith Grant explores the film’s examination of the Metropolitan as “a symptom of larger social ills”.

But Does It Really?: Like Wiseman’s other documentaries, “Hospital” is a frank yet neutral observation of an important American institution. Wiseman’s pseudo-blank slate approach to filmmaking allows you to bring your own perspective and bias towards the subject and draw your own conclusions. “Hospital” is still an engrossing view 50 years later, and you’ll get no argument against its NFR inclusion from me.

Every Former Network Gets One: Funded by the Ford Foundation for Adult Education, the National Educational Television network (NET) packaged pre-existing educational films and sent them to affiliates across the country. Its run in the ‘50s was more academic than entertaining (some called it “The University of the Air”), but that changed in 1958 with a move from Ann Arbor to New York, and a goal to become the fourth nationally broadcast television network (suck it, DuMont!). Throughout the ‘60s, NET commissioned several original documentaries that tackled social issues of the day. Among the young filmmakers recruited by the NET: former law instructor and “Cool World” producer Fredrick Wiseman. Wiseman’s first four documentaries were all commissioned by NET.

Wow, That’s Dated: For starters, we’ll pour one out for NET (see “Legacy”). As for the specifics of the film, there are the now-outmoded medical standards of 1970, and the tail end of the era where nurses wore white dresses and hats. Other than that, the only thing that’s really changed about our hospital system is the amount on the bill.

Seriously, Emmys?: “Hospital” aired on NET in 1970, and took home Emmys for News Documentary Program and an Individual Achievement award for Wiseman’s directing. 24 years later, “Hospital” was the first television program to be inducted into the NFR.

Other notes

  • For those of you wondering why a television documentary is on a list of essential films, this is explained on the NFR submission page:

“Registry criteria does not specifically prohibit television programs, commercials, music videos or foreign productions, however, the original intent of the legislation that established the Registry was to safeguard U.S. films. Consequently the National Film Preservation Board and the Librarian of Congress give first consideration to American motion pictures.”

  • If you think about, a documentary in a hospital is a brilliant idea. Documentaries are about exploring humanity on a deeper level, and you’re already incredibly vulnerable when you’re in a hospital, so a film would amplify the whole experience. Exhibit A: The heartbreaking uncut close-up of the woman describing her mother’s medical history following her stroke. You are right there with her as she experiences the pain and frustration of telling a stranger about a loved one’s condition in an intense situation.
  • And now for your consideration: several human brains. Dr. Don Knotts’ Older Brother shows a group of med students parts of a real brain, no doubt on loan from Abby…someone…
  • I respect the decision to film “Hospital” in black & white: It would have been too gory in color. That being said, eating dinner during this viewing was still a bad call on my part.
  • It’s fun hearing medical jargon spoken with a Brooklyn accent. Added bonus: the police officers that keep popping up sound like they’re straight out of “The Odd Couple”.
  • What I appreciate most about this movie is at no point does Wiseman try to make saints or sinners out of the doctors and nurses: these are regular people trying to do their job and help these patients to the best of their ability.
  • Another sign of the times: the patient who today would be identified as homosexual, but back then is diagnosed as schizophrenic. Not as dated: The phone maze the hospital psychiatrist has to navigate trying to get this man back on welfare.
  • The film spends an extended amount of time with the young Paul Dano lookalike who has ingested mescaline. A majority of that screen time is devoted to an uninterrupted shot of the man freaking out and vomiting everywhere. I never thought I’d say this, but I’d rather watch “Eraserhead” again.
  • Well thank god that scene is ov- oh don’t pan down to the vomit! Why would you do that!?
  • Another extended close-up: the shot of the woman holding her husband’s hand as he’s admitted on a gurney and drifting in and out of consciousness. I’m not crying you’re crying.
  • The Emergency Room: the one place in the 1970s where you can’t smoke!
  • Shoutout to the doctor towards the end whose unkempt hair/chin curtain combo makes him a dead ringer for me circa 2006.
  • The final sequence is a sermon at the hospital chapel attended by patients. This should be uplifting in theory, but something about passing around the collection plate at a hospital doesn’t feel right.


  • “Hospital” was the kind of stark, controversial documentary that NET was known for broadcasting. While critics often praised these films, affiliates were less enthused about alienating their viewers. It was films like “Hospital” that led to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting shutting down the network. NET’s New York headquarters merged with WNDT to become WNET, and is still the home of NET’s successor: PBS.
  • At age 89, Fredrick Wiseman is still going! In fact, in the year and a half since my post about “High School”, Wiseman has produced another documentary: 2018’s “Monrovia, Indiana”. Based on the trailer, Wiseman has not lost his touch.

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