Review: In the Same Breath Is Perhaps the Most Harrowing, Essential COVID Documentary Yet

This film was original reviewed as part of Third Coast's Sundance 2021 coverage and is being reprinted now for its streaming release. On the heels of powerful COVID-centric documentaries like Alex Gibney's Totally Under Control and the harrowing, on-the-ground exposé 76 Days comes In the Same Breath, a story filmmaker Nanfu Wang (One Child Nation) is uniquely capable of assembling with precision, perspective and urgency. Conceived as she traveled to the U.S. from China in January 2020, leaving her three-year-old son with her mother there only to be rushed back to the states as the coronavirus began to spread, Wang watched the early reports of a new, mysterious illness spread on Chinese social media with concern and worry. Chronicling a year in the pandemic, In the Same Breath begins as Wuhan (population 11 million) rings in 2020 "like any other city," Wang tells us; downtown is packed with people cheering and celebrating, completely unaware of the tragedy and death in their future (like the rest of the world). Wang narrates this film like she did One Child Nation; and also like that film, In the Same Breath starts as something incredibly personal for the filmmaker only to evolve and expand into a searing examination of politics, government, media and propaganda. In the Same Breath Image courtesy of HBO Produced entirely remotely, Wang employed a dozen freelance videographers in Wuhan, giving them marching orders from the U.S. to film everything they could, wherever they could gain access. The result is an unfiltered and unflinching glimpse into how quickly the coronavirus overwhelmed the healthcare system there and how swiftly China's communist government mobilized to control the narrative around the pandemic. Between the footage from inside Wuhan hospitals is Chinese national media coverage reporting the same government-approved messages across the country, minimizing the threat and reinforcing the regime's positive handling of the situation. As chilling as it is to see the same words broadcast by newscaster after newscaster, their scripted reports only what the government wants their citizens to hear, it's impossible to wholeheartedly indict China's response with the hindsight of the U.S.'s own failings all too evident as well. And Wang deftly builds this bridge between cultures, too, chronicling the virus's trajectory into the U.S. and the early minimization by both the inept and uniformed and by trusted sources like Anthony Fauci himself. Investigating the pandemic's spread leads Wang down unexpected paths, meeting a variety of citizens confronting the virus with everything from dismay and frustration to, at least on camera, patriotic acceptance and deference. From the father who says goodbye to his son on a ventilator in the hospital to the private health clinic owner whose husband and partner passed away in the early days of the pandemic to the grown son who has to figure out how to bury his mother only to hear the grave diggers discuss the true daily death toll, Wang distills a global tragedy to the very human, very relatable stories of those impacted directly. It all adds up to a devastating reminder—particularly in a late sequence that captures what could have been —not only of what we've lost over the course of the year, but how preventable it all really was in the end. A lot of what's to come in documentaries in 2021 will be looking back on what we lost in 2020; In the Same Breath starts the conversation with sweeping scope, exceptional perspective and an inescapable reckoning with the truth. In the Same Breath is now streaming on HBOMax.

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Lisa Trifone