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“The Jesuit philosophy is ‘Men for Others,’” states Dr. Fauci, the titular subject of the documentary Fauci, as he explains how his public school experiences informed his medical career. Indeed, it sets the tone for the rest of a film that traces the beginning of Dr. Fauci’s career as an infectious disease physician through to his role in the creation of PEPFAR, the 2014 Ebola outbreak, and his present day responsibilities in the current pandemic. The documentary bounces primarily between the 1980s HIV/AIDS epidemic and the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. In both, we see that Dr. Fauci stands as a figure of great controversy, and we are shown his thought process in navigating the court of public opinion.
The film starts off interviewing Dr. Fauci about his childhood in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn where he was exposed to the Jesuit philosophy that would dovetail with his choice to go into public health service when he was drafted into the Vietnam War. Though he began his medical career with aspirations for a private practice on Park Avenue, Dr. Fauci realized that his true calling lay in “trying to figure out diseases that people were dying from” at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases where he soon faced one of the greatest public health challenges of the 1980s – piecing together a way to combat a mysterious new disease that was killing more and more Americans.
This, of course, sounds very familiar to the intended audience of the documentary. It is a parallel that Dr. Fauci himself is well aware of, stating that COVID-19 feels like a “diabolical repeat” of his experiences in the 1980s but that “the difference is [the] divisiveness dominating COVID-19 . . . we’re going to get through it in spite of this divisiveness and this politicization. We’re not going to get through it because of it.” The film leans heavily into this contrast, showcasing the evolving attitudes of many AIDS activists as Dr. Fauci went from “the enemy” to a man sitting in on ACT UP meetings and engaging in a dialogue that would culminate in a historic address at the 1990 International AIDS Conference – an address that highlighted the need for physician-scientists to incorporate the feedback of the individuals they were trying to help and reminded activists of the compassion that physician-scientists have for their patients.
In the scenes taking place in 2020, we see an explosion of both positive and negative press coverage of Dr. Fauci as the COVID pandemic kicks into high gear. His inconsistencies regarding mask guidance, his direct challenging of President Trump, and his struggle to deal with increasing death threats against himself and his family are put on full display. The documentary does not shy away from showcasing Dr. Fauci’s vulnerability with multiple instances of a tearful Fauci recounting the deterioration of many of his AIDS patients and the “post-traumatic stress” that those experiences induced. These moments of vulnerability are threaded in with images of and commentary from his wife Christine Grady and his daughter Jennifer, a clear attempt to give us a sense of Anthony Fauci the human being and not just Dr. Fauci the public servant.
As the film draws to a close, Fauci and his wife take a walk through the COVID-19 Memorial on the National Mall in Washington DC. “When you're involved in a race to stop a horrible disease, you always feel like you’re not doing things quickly enough, or well enough,” he reflects. “One of the most mysterious aspects of our universe is how viruses have transformed our civilization . . . And the one thing I can hope for . . . is that emerging infections do not inevitably become pandemics . . . I am optimistic that the lessons that we’ve learned will prevent that from happening.” After watching this documentary, it is an optimism that is easy to share.