As if the subject needed any further resonance, “Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies” closes its three-night run acknowledging narrator Edward Herrman and producer/Stand Up to Cancer co-founder Laura Ziskin, who succumbed to the disease in December and 2011, respectively. Yet this polished PBS project — directed by Barak Goodman, under the stewardship of Ken Burns — proves somewhat unwieldy in its format, feeling strongest when it delves into the history and politics of cancer treatment, and less effective when focusing on present-day cases, clearly intended to offer a more personal touch. That’s understandable, but given how many lives cancer impacts, unnecessary.
Cancer is “as old as human life itself,” and “nearly everyone will be close to someone who suffers from it,” Herrmann’s narration notes at the outset, citing 22 million cases that kill 600,000 people in the U.S. alone.
Seeking to go beyond those statistics, the documentary — which derives its poetic title from Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book — opens with the story of parents dealing with the disease in their 17-month-old child, about as heartbreaking a thought as anyone could imagine.
Yet the impulse to put a human face on cancer’s toll by speckling such cases throughout the three nights tends to bog down the pace. While those examples are sobering and spare (they bring to mind the old “The Body Human” series), it’s nevertheless far more interesting, based on the ubiquity of cancer, to consider the arc of how scientists have understood and battled it, a process which, depending on one’s point of view, has either been remarkably fast or maddeningly slow, considering that President Nixon called for a cure in 1971.
In methodical fashion, each of the nights focuses on different aspects of the struggle against the illness, including the politics of lung and breast cancer and various tactics employed in regard to research and funding.
Any number of these threads can be fascinating, from the campaign to change perceptions of cancer to the advertising push against smoking to women rebelling against the medical establishment’s reliance on radical mastectomies. The conversation incorporates many of the scientists who have devised significant breakthroughs — most of them still around to discuss their contributions, if a little grayer for wear.
Goodman does a fine job of helping the experts to explain the science, from the use of graphics to the way news footage is woven into the film. But “Emperor of All Maladies” also stalls at times along the way, to the point where a more focused treatment and fewer anecdotal stories, condensed to two nights, would have likely been beneficial all around.
By the time it’s over, the special has come to a place that offers, at best, a measured degree of hope, couched in an appreciation of the value of tempered optimism. Despite rallying cries about eradicating the disease, the more feasible goal seems to be less a full-scale cure than simply rendering cancer manageable. Still, considering the fear and dread a diagnosis still evokes, anything that helps demystify and educate, while providing useful context, is surely welcome — and should evoke a fair amount of curiosity from viewers.
That said, despite Burns’ seal of approval and the project’s admirable intent, “The Emperor of All Maladies” is perhaps unavoidably somewhat overwhelmed by the scope of its subject matter, finding cancer as difficult for filmmakers to wrangle in documentary form as its mysteries have been for researchers to unravel.