Our guide through public health for seven presidencies

If good men are less interesting than bad as is so often said, there is little material to entertain us in the story John Thomas and Janet Hoffman Tobias tell in their documentary portrait of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the long time director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, immunologist, epidemiologist, physician with the National Institutes of Health, and Chief Medical Advisor to the President. Perhaps the filmmakers should have spent more time on his enemies. This is not a very exciting film. That said, being one who must confess I had barely heard of this important man until the COVID-19 global pandemic brought him into the foreground, I wanted to learn more. And here it is, the story of an exemplary life, in a film as dry and straightforward as this no-nonsense, indestructible man.

Dr. Fauci grew up in a populous Brooklyn Italian-American family. Formed for intellectualism and service in a Jesuit high school, he became a doctor at the time of the Vietnam war. it is interesting to learn that his choice of public health began partly as a way to avoid military service: it was an option, he took it, and he was attached to the National Institutes of Health. He was immediately excited by the prospect of excelling in the premier medical research facility of the country. He wanted to excel. He was given a platform. It's clear that he puts as much weight as anyone on the care of the individual patient. And in his work he has carried out such care. But as he explains here, it was exciting to him to be focused on the welfare of the whole society.

Dr F., or Tony, has he's known, has led the U.S. fight against every epidemic the country has faced from AIDS to SARS to Ebola, and the ongoing COVID-19, under six Presidents, and now a seventh. He has never wavered, working 12-hour days and six-day weeks throughout. It hasn't been the same. The battles against SARS and Ebola were less noticed. AIDS WAS ignored at first when HIV was thought to be a "gay disease." Homosexual men saw their urban populations devastated.

Dr. Fauci clashed with the gay AIDS activist organization ACT-UP. They hated him. But this becomes one of his most difficult times that wound up being one of his finest hours. He talked to ACT-UP, he listened to them. "I heard Brooklyn," one of his opponents said. It was not his style to blanche or turn away when attacked. Since nobody else was aggressively enough searching for a drug, the ACT-UP activists, whom we glimpse here, became experts, and they knew something. Dr. Fauci saw this. As a result of a series of intense, ongoing dialogues with citizen-patient AIDS activists, Dr. Fauci's is speech to the big AIDS conference in San Francisco, which we hear here, is one where, he notes today, ACT-UP or gay citizen activists clapped for some of the things he said, the medical delegates clapped for other things, and both clapped together at the end. Dr. Fauci had become a link between the scientist and the patient, and things changed as a result of this historic moment. (The story of ACT-UP and the gay men's struggle for government attention in the early days of AIDS is well told in David France's 2012 film How to Survive a Plague.)

Related to AIDS is the historic cooperation of Dr. Fauci and President George W. Bush, when the latter sent the former to Africa to investigate medical needs of the continent. This led to Bush's unusual $150 billion multi-year program of medical aid to Africa, the most extensive international medical aid program in history. Bush started the Iraq and Afghanistan wars; but in this, he left a shining achievement and a post-presidential Bush speaks to the camera about it and Dr. Fauci's central role. But of course Africa remains underserved now as much with COVID as it has been with AIDS.

The other important point to remember from this uplifting documentary is Dr.Fauci's comparison of the scientist v. citizen disconnect over AIDS, which we have discussed, and the one over the COVID pandemic. The film reviews the presidency that was Dr. Fauci's greatest challenge, Donald Trump's. Fauci fires off a lot of quick, clear generalizations from his desk and does not go into intricate detail. Clearly, though he does not say so, the disconnect is ideological and is influenced by a presidency when science and reason were undermined at every turn. This is a revolting development indeed: that when science has never been more needed, it has powerful opponents in multiple fields of environment and health where the future of the planet and the human race are at stake.

We see the Fauci-Trump clash at a press conference over the drug Hydroxychloroquine, whose efficacy for COVID has not been established, when Trump simply ignored what Dr. Fauci said, rather than confronting him. But now, Fauci and his family are in danger and have to have to have a security detail, which he takes in stride. "It is the job I have chosen." With COVID, the days went up to far longer than 12-hour; 20-hour ones have been mentioned elsewhere and here he says before vaccines came available (that remarkable achievement, which he paid a role in), he did not sleep much. Since Trump, the war on science and established medicine is, as he says, of a wholly different order than the understandable opposition of people suffering from AIDS before the three-drug "cocktail" that has made living with HIV as a normally healthy person possible. When this came, and Dr. Fauci played an important in the "cocktail"s wide availability in the US, we see gay men with HIV testify to how their attitude toward Fauci reversed.

But Dr. Fauci has had a harder time with COVID, and his successes as well as his missteps are chronicled here in what is an ongoing battle that is not yet won. Dr. Fauci emerges as one of the most optimistic of the leaders in the field in believing in a positive outcome. But public health and epidemiology are about past, present, and future, as the doctor, who is now a vigorous eighty (12-hour days must agree with him) is aware that there will be battles he may not live to see won.

The film covers Fauci's private life as it must be - in the background. His wife, Christine Grady, met at work, a nurse bioethicist, is extensively heard from, as is one of his three daughters, Allison. The most telling point is how the family used to do everything possible to be together for dinner, which made dinner unusually late. A daughter says her father came home, and was dancing with her mother in the kitchen. She wanted to have dinner! Lots of school time recitals or games were missed. But it seems the family respects the cause.

Several medical journalists are heard from a lot. So are Bono and Microsoft czar and ambitious world-fixer Bill Gates.

Fauci, 105 mins., debuted at Telluride 2021. National Geographic Films and Magnolia will release the film in theaters on Friday, Sept. 10, 2021. Note: After the 4 pm screening at the Vogue Theater in San Francisco Sept. 12 there will be an interview of AIDS activist Peter Staley by director John Hoffman.