The vitriol aimed at Dr. Anthony Fauci over the past 18 months gradually soared past the hyperbolic into the realm of the sadly comical. This occurred right around the time pundits (primarily, if not exclusively, on one side of the political divide) and Twitter trolls went beyond calling Fauci “wrong” and began maligning him as a “partisan hack” — and for being short.
Fauci, a new doc from National Geographic Documentary Films directed by John Hoffman and Janet Tobias, does not delve deeply into the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases’ height, and somewhat thankfully it doesn’t engage in nonstop hero worship directed at the public face of the government’s response to COVID-19. While it’s occasionally stuck in very rote biographical details and frequently limited by a race to theaters and TV that doesn’t necessarily align with any real ending to the documentary’s story, Fauci has an actual structural focus that’s smartly considered and interesting, even if it left me with myriad questions.
Captures the exhaustion of the past two years, perhaps to a fault.
Hoffman and Tobias approach Fauci as something of a Tale of Two and a Half Pandemics, a chronicle of a public servant whose career has been characterized by endless hard work — 12-hour-days, six days a week — and who is regularly accused of being a murderer. I’d say that some audiences will find everything they need to continue to admire Dr. Fauci and that some audiences will, with some searching, find some of the things they need to continue to pillory him, but that second audience isn’t going to watch Fauci anyway.
While the 2014 Ebola outbreak-that-wasn’t is given some time in Fauci, the documentary is built more around the juxtaposition between Fauci’s time leading the government response to the AIDS crisis in its earliest days and his handling of similar responsibilities as word broke that a contagious virus had caused the shutdown of a major Chinese city.
In both cases, Fauci was the face of the medical establishment’s response to a public health crisis, and in both cases mistakes were made and Fauci was castigated in the media and in increasingly vocal protests. There is, of course, a subset of the audience (the one I’ve already said won’t watch this documentary) that would argue that evidence of mistakes is proof that Fauci should have been fired long ago, but one of the most persuasive cases the documentary makes is that the scientific method requires learning from those mistakes.
With nearly 40 years of ongoing involvement, there’s much more to be said about what was learned in researching and treating AIDS. Here, the force pushing against Fauci and the establishment’s slow progress is ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). The AIDS activist community is well represented in the film, which includes commentary by Peter Staley, Robert Vazquez-Pacheco and Michael Manganiello. Many activists vividly remember their initial antipathy toward Fauci, followed by the respect they felt toward him in response to his direct interactions with them, the people for whom this research was literally life-and-death. There are stories fueled by anger, but there are also funny stories and a reminder of a time when adversarial relationships came with respect, begrudging or otherwise (not that this respect stopped Larry Kramer from, at the time, writing that Fauci was “an incompetent idiot” and a “murderer”).
Fauci is front-facing and forward-looking rather than introspective. There’s no sense of the filmmakers pushing him to explore which aspects of the medical community’s flawed response to AIDS were preventable, and by whom. Kramer later praised Fauci as the lone hero on the government side of the AIDS crisis. But the question of what the government, rather than Anthony Fauci, learned from working to understand and combat AIDS, and what role that played in later epidemics, is a matter I was constantly waiting for the documentary to address.
Fauci’s a company man, not a partisan hack. There’s no criticism from him of the Reagan administration, only general acknowledgment of the collective ignorance that forced him into his now familiar position of America’s Medical Explainer. And just as Fauci avoided directly insulting our 45th president in his myriad COVID-related television appearances, he hasn’t chosen this moment as the right time to come out firing.
Unlike the ACT UP activists, nobody who has called for Fauci’s head over the past two years is on camera here. Maybe in five or 10 years, we’ll have a clearer picture of the consequences of Fauci and company’s COVID learning curve, and maybe our national discourse will have calmed, but I doubt there will be stories about begrudging friendships forged over our recent “debates.” I doubt that Fauci, even in that hypothetical documentary five or 10 years in the future, will be prepared to finally let loose on Trump or Tucker Carlson.
It turns out that having full and unprecedented access to Anthony Fauci is only a peripherally enlightening thing. The directors followed him through the heart of the pandemic, and the result is very close to “what you see is what you get,” with all the visual dynamism you’d expect from a man whose life has been nonstop Zoom meetings and interviews since early 2020.
His Brooklyn-infused scrappiness is good for some humor, and he occasionally lets down his guard to admit that some expressions of hatred toward him hurt his feelings. That’s about it, though. He’s probably exhausted. The audience is definitely exhausted. The documentary captures that, perhaps too well.
Fauci’s wife, Christine Grady, and daughter Jenny are there for the human details, while at the same time acknowledging the struggles that come from such a work-obsessed patriarch, the missed recitals and sporting events and the long-delayed dinners. I’d have preferred more time with them than appreciative-yet-gratuitous celebrity guests like Bono, George W. Bush and Bill Gates.
The film isn’t a commercial for Anthony Fauci, though it may be a commercial for the mission of the National Institutes of Health, an agency that has worked with Hoffman on several of his previous documentaries. Or maybe it’s just a commercial for professionalism. At least that’s a product worth selling.