“Fauci” – Personal not business [MOVIE REVIEW]

Dr. Anthony Fauci in his office at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Photo courtesy of National Geographic for Disney+

Dr. Anthony Fauci in his office at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Photo courtesy of National Geographic for Disney+

“Fauci,” the new documentary directed by John Hoffman and Janet Tobias, both past Emmy winners, is not so much a canonization of Dr. Anthony Fauci as it is an illumination of the journey of a life well-lived in the service of others.

It would be so easy to shine a spotlight on someone whose prominence seems to have sprung out miraculously at a time of need. But that would be too facile because Dr. Fauci has had a long, interesting, and singularly focused trajectory. A scientist, but also a clinician, and administrator of a division of the National Institute of Health (NIH), the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), he is the longest-serving public health leader in Washington whose career has been bookended by the two great health crises of our times: AIDS and the Corona Virus.

A recent medical school graduate he landed at NIAID as part of his required military service during the Viet Nam War in 1968,. He combined clinical duties with research in immunology, eventually becoming director of the institute in 1984 under Ronald Reagan. He has served every president since then. Serving presidents would be misleading, however, because Fauci, like his colleagues at the NIH and its divisions, serves science, first and foremost.

The journey most of us recognize began in 1981 when he was looking through a journal entitled Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) put out by the CDC. He noticed a peculiar finding: a pneumonia that had caused the death of a small number of homosexual males. Convinced that this was an unremarkable anomaly, he gave it no thought; that is until the next issue of MMWR  reported a five-fold increase in the same population for the pneumonia as well as a particular kind of cancer called Kaposi’s Sarcoma. This was not an anomaly. Fauci was convinced that he was seeing a new disorder  and immediately changed the focus and direction of his research to this novel disease.

This new disease is what we now know to be HIV/AIDS and it presented problems previously unheard of. To the rapidly radicalized homosexual community, dissatisfied by the government response to the disease that was so rapidly ravaging them, Anthony Fauci became the face of government inaction. Nothing could have been farther from the truth as he continued to methodically address the problems he faced in unlocking this affliction of the immune system. But research goes slowly and the need for an immediate solution often runs counter to reality. Fauci became the target for ACT UP, a highly vocal Gay organization started by Larry Kramer. Fauci, a preternaturally calm individual, recognized early on in the angry demonstrations against him that responding in kind would be unproductive.

In lessons that would reverberate in our present day, politics would intervene. There was more than an element of truth that the Reagan administration was slow to respond to this crisis affecting an unpopular group of people. The focus was on the economy not on vaccines. Funding was not what it should have been and progress was slow.

But Fauci was always willing to meet with his adversaries He believed in communication. He listened. And as new treatments began to emerge, he recognized that listening to the community most affected by this horrible disease might result in better clinical trials. By involving the afflicted population in designing the clinical trials, he broke new ground and actually sped the ability to get the treatments out to those who were infected.

Hoffman and Tobias intercut between the Fauci of today and the Fauci of the AIDS era, often splitting the screen in such a way that it appears that the elder Fauci is viewing his younger self. They include home movies of Fauci, his wife Dr. Christine Grady, and their daughters.

But there is a difference between what was then and what is now. Early in the AIDS crisis as demonstrations targeted him as a professional, Fauci recognized that this was a form of political theater, a mode of communication. Taking a page from “The Godfather,” he stated that this wasn’t personal, it was business and he soldiered on. ACT UP, representative of other similar activist groups, did not understand how science priorities worked. Their priorities often ran counter to the priorities dictated by solid scientific research.

Dr. Anthony Fauci and Christine Grady sit at their kitchen table in December 2020. Photo courtesy of National Geographic for Disney+

The Coronavirus, obviously a focus of this documentary, is both different and similar in scope to the other crises Fauci faced as the leader of his institute. Whether it’s AIDS or the Coronavirus, people are always looking for someone to blame. Scapegoating, as is pointed out in the film, is a convenient way to absolve people, primarily politicians, of responsibility. For Fauci, attention and fame also brings criticism. He freely acknowledges his missteps with masking. Based on previous experience with viruses, Fauci and his group did not realize that this unique virus could be transmitted by people who were asymptomatic. With more information on the spread of the disease, mask recommendations and mandates became paramount to slowing the spread. But something else was halting progress and this time it was political and personal. Divisiveness in the country, a lack of dialogue, has contributed to our lack of progress. It’s gotten ugly and personal against him and his family. There is no longer a “normal.”

As Fauci, now the target of politicians looking for an easy scapegoat, has pointed out, we need to focus on what needs to be done. The common enemy is the virus. It is, perhaps, too idealistic to get Rand Paul to understand that point. Attacking the messenger, no matter how tired you are of the message, is not the solution.

Hoffman and Tobias have taken full advantage of past film footage and the individuals who comment on this history in the making. Yes, this is a film about Fauci; after all, it is called “Fauci.” But reading between the lines, this is the story of our times and of science. The process hasn’t changed. Fauci, as a person with a calm demeanor that defies description is unique; the scientific process he follows is not. So thank you to the directors for giving us a closer glimpse into the man of our times, but also for the realistic way in which they presented scientific research. There are no easy answers; it can’t be rushed; but with patience, persistence, and dedicated scientists there will always be a way forward.

Opening Friday September 11 at the Laemmle Royal. Proof of vaccination must be shown. See the theater website for exceptions.

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