PBS // 2010 // 54 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // February 5th, 2011
Confronting end-of-life choices.
The facts are these: modern medicine has evolved to the point where human beings can sometimes be kept alive long after their bodies would have simply quit naturally. In some cases this allows people to enjoy life for a greater length of time than they might have been able to otherwise. In other cases people are simply kept alive and nothing more; breathing vegetables without the ability to communicate. In these cases, it is often up to the families to decide whether or not the person on life support should be kept alive until even modern medicine fails or whether the person should be allowed to pass away naturally. This is a difficult question, and one which Frontline: Facing Death addresses gently but firmly.
At one point in this 54-minute special, it is noted that no one wants to die, but no one wants to die a bad death. Is it better to die on your own terms when you are ready, or is it worth it to declare a fight to the bitter end and risk spending your final moments in a despairing battle with one's own body? Frontline: Facing Death presents numerous cases of people in situations along these lines. These people know they're going to die soon; it's just a matter of how that's going to happen. As you might expect, it's a grim, harrowing experience. I must confess that I'm glad the running time is as brief as it is, because I don't know how much more of this I could have taken.
Though the special does not take an official position on what should be done in these cases (noting that each person's life must be carefully considered on a case-by-case basis), it does present some trends which are important to consider. First of all, most of the people we see attempting to prolong their lives usually do not prolong that life by much (sometimes it's only a day or two), and in most cases their efforts mean that their final days of life are worse than they would have been otherwise. Secondly, we see the uncomfortable position that doctors and nurses are placed in -- they've seen these scenarios on countless occasions and know that doing additional operations or making drastic last-minute attempts frequently only serves to take away from time the person might have spent with their family, but they also realize there are occasions when the effort is worth it. We see one woman on the verge of death, but a decision to keep her on life support a while longer results in the woman regaining consciousness for a little while.
It is a very uncomfortable truth, but the fact of the matter is that there is a great deal of time and money being poured into attempting to preserve the lives of individuals who would be better off opting for hospice care and attempting to spend their final days in as much comfort and peace as possible. Even so, the exceptions to the rule -- those uncommon surprise recoveries -- make it a requirement for the physicians to pursue that avenue if that is what the family wants. Frontline: Facing Death does not suggest that changes need to be made in the way doctors approach they matter (they are doing what they should, which is to be as sensitive as possible to the families, make suggestions based on their experience and ultimately do whatever the family/patient wantw), but rather that individuals should take the time to really contemplate the statistics and determine what they want before they're put in a difficult position (or before their family is). If given the option, would you choose a comfortable death a little earlier or a bad death later on? A tough question to begin with; even tougher when you realize that you may be that special person who beats the odds.
The special is well-produced, thoughtful and objective, but it's difficult to recommend the DVD release. This is due to the terrible transfer, which offers horrible detail and lots of color bleeding in addition to being non-anamorphic. Basically, it looks about as good as it would on standard-def television, maybe a little worse. In 2011, that's absolutely unacceptable. Audio is perfectly acceptable, though this is largely a talking-heads piece without much nuance in that area. There are no bonus features included on the disc.
The special is free to go, the DVD release is guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 54 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Not Rated