Monday, October 11, 2021

Under the Microscope: FAUCI

The best service of National Geographic’s Fauci is simply to remind us that Dr. Anthony Fauci is an actual human being. The picture is a formulaic television-news-magazine-style biographical documentary constructed simply and sturdily out of lots of access, talking-head interviews, and archival footage. The idea is to sketch out the arc of his career as a dogged public servant and diligent researcher over his decades in the National Institutes of Health. The position has made him a key figure in fights against illnesses of all kinds, most notably AIDS, ebola, and COVID. This, of course, is not an uncontroversial role, as public health policy is the most intimate overlap between the demands of living in a community and the intimacy of one’s own body—not to mention that wild-haired strain of American individualism that always gums up attempts to find common ground in the greater good.

We’re currently struggling to emerge from a mismanaged pandemic where at least half of the problem has been obstinate resistance on the part of a vocal minority to doing literally anything to stop or even slow the disease. This made Fauci the target of anti-science ire and conspiracy theories from the right flank; naturally, it was met by a secular deification from some on the left. Thus the relief that the movie’s about him as a man. There’s a certain cyclical sadness one can get watching footage of right-wing religious groups angry in the 80s that Fauci is leading the charge on understanding AIDS, a disease they bigotedly assume is God’s punishment for gays, back-to-back with images of current MAGA outrage against Fauci for daring to suggest wearing masks and avoiding crowds can slow the spread of a novel respiratory disease (or whatever conspiracy du jour they’re astroturfing). At the center is a man just doing his job the best he can. He clearly cares about the health of his fellow Americans and is dutifully doing the work that can help better understand the challenges of emerging diseases and how to overcome them. The movie doesn’t build up his pedestal, but nor does it sink him by his worst miscalculations. It understands enough to approach its subject with some nuance. 

I wish the movie was as good as its intentions—and his. It’s too scattershot and scrambled chronologically—and the talking heads, Fauci aside, too character-witness polished—to really tell more than the broad strokes of any ideas. The movie’s ultimately too disorganized, hopping between themes and trends and moments in time without meaningful juxtapositions. It also has too many clips of Fox News and screenshots of Twitter trolls, more than needed to contextualize so that it almost inadvertently starts to look like counterbalance. (I let out the loudest sigh at the umpteenth clip from one of the aforementioned channel’s hosts’ hate speech.) But as the movie lets us see him at work, and hear from friends, family and colleagues, as well as hearing from some reasonable critics (like those protesting for AIDS treatments at a time when those in power were determined to ignore the problem), it can at least be refreshing to move past the hyperbole and see a person. Would that we could remember that lesson more often with public figures.

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