Many biographical documentaries are just puff-pieces celebrating supposed heroes. Others spend too much effort trying to tell the truth. In both cases, there’s a lot of room for dispute. Maybe you don’t agree with the hagiographical slant, or perhaps the filmmakers got the facts wrong or simply misrepresented them. The more documentaries I watch, the less I appreciate them for any information they’re communicating that isn’t visual in nature. John Hoffman and Janet Tobias‘ Fauci reminds me of the importance of literally showing the subject as more than just a series of stated experiences and achievements.
The feature documentary spotlights the life and work of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the immunologist who has become an American icon during the COVID-19 pandemic. As the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, he has seemingly been the primary voice of either reason or oppression of freedom, depending on your perspective, in the fight against the coronavirus. He’s just a human being who happens to be an expert on diseases and an advisor to the White House regardless of the political party in residence. His face doesn’t need to be on prayer candles, and he doesn’t deserve death threats.
Fauci effectively humanizes the famous — or infamous — physician-scientist and levels out who he really is by putting him on camera as much as possible. As long as your subject is alive, why not let them speak for themselves? Not just to personally explain their own past but to display their presence. To establish personality, facial expression, body language, attitude, discomfort, sense of humor, and other visible cues that allow the audience to get to know someone as someone, not something. Read a biographical text, be it a Wikipedia article or a magazine profile, or a book, for an authorial perspective on a person. But there’s nothing like the sense of someone you get by watching and hearing them. This is what documentary cinema has to its benefit.
And who better than Dr. Fauci to be illustrative of this? What better story than his to prove the essentiality of the human image in motion in the arena of biography? Yes, he’s a suitable subject for the empathic power of documentary because people apparently want him dead and they need to see that he’s a regular guy with a family and a job and a right to life. He’s also well-suited for the theme of humanization since he has been a proponent of empathy and tolerance throughout his career. He defended against the prejudices and discrimination that sprung up during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, physically demonstrated compassion in opposition to fears dominating the conversation around Ebola, and maintained a level of impartial civility towards his detractors through everything.
“To say because someone has a particular lifestyle that they’re unsavory is objectionable. These individuals who are infected, be they homosexuals or IV drug abusers, are people. People who deserve compassion, who deserve care, and who deserve concern.” – Dr. Anthony Fauci in an archival clip in ‘Fauci.’
Of course, Fauci is not perfect. The documentary acknowledges this by addressing the mistakes he made with AIDS and HIV and more recently with COVID-19. But we can also see it in his demeanor during his sit-down interviews and other appearances in the film. He smirks too often when discussing serious matters, both historical and current, such as death tolls. If you’re a good judge of character, you know he’s not meaning to smile or seem to almost laugh when talking about devastating pandemics. It’s an understandable part of the discomfort in speaking on tragedy, especially one you’re directly involved with. And it’s an unavoidable byproduct of the absurdities he’s encountered, about COVID-19 and about himself, over the last two years.
Everyone has a different way of showing how they’re affected by something. When Fauci suddenly becomes emotional while discussing his research on AIDS more than 30 years ago, it’s a revealing moment because he goes from appearing unmoved and distanced in his recollection, exhibiting his usual unintentional expression of indifference, to being impaired in his composure. I admit that it’s also an odd scene, filmically, however, because we hear the interviewer (Hoffman, I presume) ask Fauci about his display of sorrow before we can really identify it on the screen for ourselves. And then it’s that address of Fauci being affected that clearly induces further and more evident distress.
Fauci also shows the humanity of its subject by concentrating its scope of interviewees to people with personal ties to the man and the material. I could do without the late appearance from Bono and maybe even the unexpected, albeit de-politicizing, testimonial from George W. Bush. But at least there’s not a lot of indirect critiquing, positively or negatively, about Dr. Fauci. That stuff tends to just come down to points of view on the things that a subject has done or said rather than a proper insight of the human being. For this, the film presents palpable affection, not just words, from his wife and fellow medical expert Dr. Christine Grady, as well as from one of his daughters, some of his colleagues, and a few adversaries from ACT UP who’ve turned allies.
Fauci may not change people’s minds about its subject or his work. Viewers may still take issue with stated facts or with the way they’re presented. Others can criticize the nonlinear structure of the film’s historicizing methods and its impact (I think it mostly works). And they are welcome to object to the very existence of such an inevitably highly reverent documentary about a person that also means to temper his celebrity and sanctity. But it ought to still show audiences beyond his supporters and fans and the trusting public he serves that he’s a genuine and therefore fallible human being as much as he’s a credible authority on one of the major issues of our time. And if that means at least the death threats discontinue, the production of the film will all be worth it.
Fauci is now streaming on Disney Plus.