End Game is a moving Netflix Original documentary about coming to terms with life, hope and death, in two San Francisco Bay Area medical facilities.
I often lie about what I do for a living, as I haven’t yet found a way to say, “I write about movies and video games on the internet,” without sounding like I’m joking. This morning, for instance, while I was waiting for my daughter to be allowed into school, I was anxious. I knew that I needed to rush home in order to watch and review End Game, a new Netflix Original documentary about terminally ill patients in the final days of their lives. Being a critic isn’t always so morbid, and as it happens neither is End Game, though I didn’t know that at the time. But I was worried that someone would ask me why I was in such a rush; why I was so uncomfortable standing around, just waiting. What would I say?
It turns out nobody did, which is just as well. But when I sat down to watch End Game, which is the product of two Academy Award-winning filmmakers, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, and probes the questions of life and death in the context of two San Francisco Bay Area medical facilities, I thought back to that moment. A school playground is one of the few slices of society in which everyone is there for the same reason, united by a common purpose. One of the others, oddly enough, is a hospital.
If End Game is about something specific, that thing isn’t death. It’s about acceptance. Every patient in this documentary, men and women, husbands and wives, parents and children, they all die. They have no chance of survival, which is made clear to them and their loved ones by the staff who tend to them. But having no chance is not the same thing as having no hope. As one of the doctors says, we can’t know what it feels like to be dead. But we can get used to the idea before we go. We can greet it boldly, surrounded by those we love and who love us. If there’s a better way, I certainly can’t think of one.
One thing I did think about, weirdly, was Heath Ledger, and his iconic performance as the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Another consequence of being a critic, aside from not being able to tell anyone with a straight face, is that you often filter things through a lifetime of media influences; moments that have moved you or enriched you in some way, that stick with you. In that film, there’s a scene in which Ledger’s character taunts a police officer. “In their last moments,” he says, “a person shows you who they really are.”
If this is true, which I suspect it is, End Game confirms my suspicion that most people are funny, warm, and brave. The documentary opens with a woman, bedridden, bald, being fed and medicated through snaking pipes and tubes. When she wakes up, delirious, the doctors ask her a series of questions to determine her lucidity. “Who is the current president?” is one of them, at which point she rolls her eyes and laughs.
The woman’s name is Mitra. She is Iranian, as are her family, who include her mother and I believe her sister. These are strong women, the mother especially. Life is etched into her face and hands. She sees her daughter suffering and doesn’t want it to continue, but at the same time she doesn’t want to address what that entails. Towards the end, both of the documentary and Mitra’s life, she starts to argue with her other daughter, who had spent much of the 40-minute documentary crying and hoping for a miracle. The daughter is no longer crying, and instead takes her mother in her arms and tells her she has to let go.
When Mitra’s mother broke, so did I. The next time I’m in my daughter’s school playground, perhaps I’ll tell someone about her.