By C.J. Hirschfield
Cher. Elvis. Plato. Beyonce. Their fame is such that only one name is needed for recognition.
And now– Fauci, perhaps one of the most unlikely cultural icons ever. A new documentary puts this remarkable public servant within the context of history, in which, as he describes it, “the two most devastating pandemics in the last 100 years are the bookends of my life and career.”
Six-time Emmy winner John Hoffman collaborated with Emmy and Peabody Award winner Janet Tobias to produce and direct FAUCI, which takes the NIH spokesperson out from behind the press conference podium, and offers a multidimensional look at a kid from a tough section of Brooklyn who grew up to consistently speak truth to both power and protesters.
The film attempts to tell a number of stories—Anthony Fauci’s role in studying three of the world’s most deadly virus pandemics–AIDS, Ebola and COVID– under the direction of no less than six presidents, and generally succeeds quite well. The use of split screens is very effective, showing Fauci at different ages, always fighting the good fight armed with science. Some time and subject transitions, however, are choppy and confusing.
But what a story it is, and well worth telling, particularly to those who might not be aware of Fauci’s role in the search for an AIDS cure in the eighties and nineties. It is the most compelling part of the film, helped mightily by the words of Peter Staley, one of the leading AIDS and LGBTQ rights advocates of his generation. Staley is able to effectively articulate the tensions that existed at the beginning of the AIDS crisis around the issues of discrimination, and failure to move forward with a cure more quickly. He also (as did AIDS activist/playwright Larry Kramer) came to respect Fauci’s acknowledgement that the NIH needed to act more quickly and include diverse communities in the research for the cure.
In fact, a clip from a C-SPAN speech at 1980 International AIDS conference (full Fauci speech starts at 28:20 time code) in San Francisco was to me, the high point in the film. With scores of protesters in the audience, Fauci admits his agency’s faults, states that physicians, scientists, and activists actually have the same goal, but also states that it is “devastating and unfair” for scientists working on the cure to be singled out and named as scoundrels. “I have been vilified by the very best,” he jokes. His speech was met with resounding applause—from all quarters.
He had no way of knowing what sort of vilification awaited him decades later with the COVID crisis, when the toxic combination of Trump and the internet made it much easier to fan the flames of hatred among anti-vaxxers, resulting in death threats to him and his family.
The theme of politics, science, and equity during times of medical crises runs throughout the film, but we also get to know the private side of a man whose decency, integrity and commitment has remained consistent throughout his 80 years of life.
His Jesuit schooling that inspired him to public service, his close relationship with his family, and even his joyful use of swear words helps us see a more rounded picture of a real mensch.
The two-year-old National Geographic Documentary Films company, which produced FAUCI, won its first Oscar last year for “Free Solo,” about a solo climber who scaled El Capitan without a rope.
I’m not going to judge whether this feat was more difficult than what Anthony Fauci has endured over the last half century, but the new documentary will definitely solicit appreciation for those who knowingly choose a difficult path and see it through with determination and grace.
In English, 1 hour 44 minutes, PG-13
Fauci is currently playing in select theaters and streaming on Disney+
All photos courtesy of National Geographic for Disney+.
C.J. Hirschfield recently retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry where she produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel and advocated on behalf of the industry. A former writer for Film Month, she also penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years and now writes features and reviews for EatDrinkFilms. C.J. holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.
Hirschfield currently serves on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film series showing free documentaries in Oakland and Piedmont, as well as on the advisory board of Youth Beat, a youth media training program that provides low-income Oakland students with the tools and opportunities they need to thrive in today’s workforce.
C.J. says, “A good documentary takes us places we never could never have imagined, and changes the way we see the world.”