Unlike the company running that gruesome but alluring touring "Bodies … The Exhibition," American medical schools like the Mayo Clinic, which is featured in Chip Duncan's The First Patient, source their cadavers from people who have willingly donated to science or education. But unlike that controversial for-profit exhibition, the documentary fails to spark wonderment beyond the parochial interests of the medical students he interviews.
It's not that they fail to appreciate human anatomy -- or how human remains offer an unprecedented opportunity to know something about ourselves that is otherwise kept from us by our own skin. We know this because the students say so quite often, as they talk about their day, how they eat breakfast watching dissections, how nerve-racking and even scary and disgusting it all is -- as the camera records them cutting into the corpses. (Viewers will see a lot of that, and most will want to skip the popcorn.)
Duncan provides some students' quite humble backgrounds, perhaps to show that they aren't all privileged or uncaring, but he never really follows through. The students are mostly respectful, many articulating deep gratitude to the people who've made it possible for them to safely make their first mistakes. They're hardly Leonardo da Vinci, who turned his own human anatomy dissections into art but, then, they're simply training for a profession. That makes The First Patient an excellent primer for students embarking on (or showing an interest in) medical school. For the rest of us, however, it's just dead.