Disney+ lionizes the good doctor in a ludicrous hagiography
For the past 19 months, the COVID-19 pandemic has blessed (or cursed, depending on your perspective) us with the ubiquitous presence of National Institute of Health infectious disease specialist Dr. Anthony Fauci, who fawning media allies at CNN, MSNBC, CBS, ABC, or NBC are interviewing at seemingly every moment. On the rare occasions when a news anchor isn’t delivering Fauci’s talking points, either Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul or Ohio Representative Jim Jordan are grilling him in Congress, with the aforementioned networks plus FOX (albeit with differing editing) endlessly replaying his comments for the following 24-hour news cycle.
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Simply put, we can’t avoid Fauci. So much so, in fact, that a documentary on the man while the signature crisis of his career is still playing out seems both premature and entirely unnecessary. Yet, a Fauci biography is exactly what National Geographic Films has decided the world needs right now, and so the feature-length “Fauci” is currently available to stream on Disney+.
“A lot of people don’t like me, because I represent the truth,” Fauci declares in the opening moments of the film. It’s a line that sets the stage for the bulk of what we will see for the next 90 minutes. The film presents Fauci as a paragon of decency and truth, his claims buttressed by both his own remarks and those of his wife and daughters, and by a veritable chorus line of credentialed allies who appear for studio interviews.
New York Times reporter Apoorva Mandavilli appears to sing the praises of the good doctor, as well as former CDC director Tom Frieden, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Laurie Garrett, and former National Security Advisor and current Assistant Secretary of State Susan Rice. The selection of these defenders is ironic given that Mandavilli has recently published egregious errors regarding COVID’s threat to children, Rice had a rocky–to be kind–relationship with the truth during the Obama administration, and Frieden is a convicted sex criminal, but the subject of the film is Fauci, so let’s return to him.
While the film interviews Fauci’s defenders directly, it depicts his detractors nearly exclusively in short clips gathered from perennial media bogeyman FOX News. The intended audience for this documentary clearly comes from one side of the political spectrum, that being a side for which FOX is shorthand for “right-wing falsehoods, please disregard.” We don’t see much substance in the anti-Fauci remarks, but none is necessary. A loudmouth disagreeing with Fauci with the diabolical FOX logo on screen is all the evidence we need to discern that Fauci was telling the truth when he claimed to be.
And herein lies the chief problem with even producing a Fauci documentary at all in 2021. We’ve heard about the polarization and political tribalism in 21st Century America so ad nauseum as to make the phrase “ad nauseum” nauseous. But its particularly challenging to snap out of it because our two tribes cannot even agree on the same facts. Two diametrically opposed camps are shouting entirely past each other into the void, making arguments that are incomprehensible to the other because the talking points being presented as fact are so different they may as well be in different dialects.
The online reviews for ‘Fauci’ perfectly encapsulate this. The certified critics of Rotten Tomatoes currently praise ‘Fauci’ with a 91% “fresh” rating, while the Internet users of IMDb bestow upon it a 1.5 out of 10 at the time of this writing. As with the larger political issues at play in America, neither side really gives you the complete story. Many of the media elites surely saw a positive review of Fauci and a positive review of ‘Fauci’ as synonymous. And it’s a safe bet many if not most of the Internet reviewers didn’t think actually watching the movie was a prerequisite for bashing it. This gets us nowhere. The only way to discern the actual truth is to go see for yourself.
Unfortunately, after sitting through ‘Fauci,’ I’m honestly not sure why you’d want to do this. A Fauci fan is likely to come away from the experience with warm feelings, while a COVID skeptic is more likely to feel something less pleasant in the intestines, but a viewer from either camp is unlikely to remember exactly why he or she felt that way an hour later. Simply put, I am hard-pressed to recall viewing a full-length documentary that documents less.
Any film which defines Fauci as “Truth” must by necessity grapple with the facts of Fauci’s 180-degree turn on the merits of masks, with his changing benchmarks for herd immunity, or with his spreading of panic during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. Incredibly, the producers of ‘Fauci’ instead opted to ignore these controversies altogether. On masks, the film presents as fact Fauci’s implausible story that he feared masks would be in short supply for health-care workers, scarcely explains his reasoning, then never mentions it again.
It doesn’t even broach the more uncomfortable aspects of the other two topics. The film whitewashes them completely out as if they do not exist, stereotyping his detractors as no more than a blustering Tucker Carlson or Laura Ingraham mouthing empty phrases. When the directors ask Fauci to discuss his impressions of former President Donald Trump, he responds with one word: “Yikes.”
We spend roughly half the film on the AIDS crisis, and the producers unearthed an impressive amount of archival footage from the era. We see Fauci in labs, speaking at various engagements with AIDS activists, on ‘Donahue.; The presence of this footage–rarely seen by present-day viewers–is the film’s strongest asset. Yet even here, the footage is remarkably devoid of specifics. Whether it’s AIDS or COVID, the overarching impression is that people get frustrated when a virus is running wild, they calm down once it’s under control, and through it all the good Dr. Fauci is unafraid to give them the truth. But we scarcely even hear what the truth is. It only instructs us to know that Fauci relays it, and that’s apparently all the layperson can understand.
One morsel of truth Fauci does deliver to applause from AIDS activists is that “scientists cannot dismiss activists merely on account of the fact that they are not trained scientists.” You could view this statement, in the COVID era, as Fauci delivering a prophetic indictment of his future self and his allies, who have relentlessly sought to marginalize the very real, often very scientific, concerns of COVID skeptics with scoffs such as “are you an epidemiologist?” Yet neither Fauci nor the filmmakers seem to grasp the irony.
On the home front, Fauci and his family cast the doctor as a hardworking victim of “divisiveness” and “hate,” the impression again being that people are upset about viruses and take it out on poor Tony. The specifics of these arguments are, again, never given on either side, reduced by omission to trifling grievances.
What we do hear, a lot, is how hard Fauci works. They tell us repeatedly about his 12-hour days at NIH, after which the family would eat dinner together, no matter how late he came home. While these anecdotes certainly have their charm, and a strong work ethic is admirable and sympathetic, the film yet again gives us no details. In a 90-minute movie about a man’s professional life, with repeated references to how long and hard he works, it never tells us what–beyond a job title–he actually does at work. It’s a remarkable feat of filmmaking magic.
The most emblematic moment of both this documentary and arguably our entire sorry COVID era comes towards the end. We see Fauci working in his home office, surrounded by masks and multiple containers of hand sanitizer. Looming above his desk: A larger-than-life-sized acrylic painting on canvas of himself. Two Faucis on one screen at one time. If Fauci is The Truth, and Fauci is The Science, it is only fitting that the man works from home in a sanctuary of his own making, able to gaze upwards and to the left of his desk whenever he needs inspiration, taking it in from the only source that matters. As for the rest of us, it may be time to start seeing other people.