×

Film Review: ‘Jim Allison: Breakthrough’

Filmmaker Bill Haney takes an effectively straightforward approach to fashioning a respectful portrait of maverick cancer researcher James P. Allison.

Director:
Bill Haney
With:
Jim Allison, Sharon Belvin, Rachel Murphy
Release Date:
Sep 27, 2019

Rated PG-13  1 hour 31 minutes

Filmmaker Bill Haney obviously figured he required neither flashy technique nor melodramatic hyperbole for “Jim Allison: Breakthrough,” his prosaically straightforward but consistently interesting portrait of the maverick research scientist who was awarded a 2018 Nobel Prize in medicine for his decades-long efforts to develop an antibody that would enhance the ability of the immune system to battle cancer.

And truth to tell, the lack of flash and filigree isn’t much of a drawback. Granted, “Breakthrough” is so obviously cable-ready that it’s structured to allow for the easy insertion of commercials. But James P. Allison comes across as such a colorful character — a small-town Texas native whose extracurricular activities have ranged from challenging Lone Star State legislators eager to mandate the teaching of creationism in high school to playing harmonica on stages of various sizes alongside Willie Nelson — that he provides all the dynamism the documentary really needs.

Allison, now 71, admits early on here that his fight against cancer has always been something of a grudge match. He was just 11 when his mother succumbed to lymphoma; in subsequent years, he lost two uncles and a brother to other forms of cancer. His natural inclination to develop a cure for the disease progressively drove him to obsessive scrutiny of the immune system — specifically, to studies of T-cells, the white blood cells that attack diseased cells — long before immunology was widely accepted as anything more than “voodoo science” by academicians, traditionalists and Big Pharma investors.

Popular on Variety

As his research continued, Allison often was referred to as “the Texas T-Cell Mechanic,” a nickname that, the documentary hints, was not always employed by admirers. But the iconoclastic Allison paid little heed to doubters, critics or multiple setbacks. With a handful of university students and fellow researchers in his corner, he doggedly experimented to find ways of weaponizing T-Cells in the war on the Big C, neglecting his personal life, and ultimately divorcing his supportive but not infinitely patient wife, while keeping his eyes on the prize.

With Woody Harrelson providing sporadic narration for what is essentially an adroitly assembled collection of talking-head interviews, “Breakthrough” is most compelling in scenes that focus on the literally life-or-death struggle of Sharon Belvin, who was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma at age 22, and benefited little from traditional treatments until she participated in the first clinical trial of Ipilimumab, the “checkpoint inhibitor” developed from Allison’s research.

You may find yourself wishing Haney had devoted more time to Belvin, and to Rachel Humphrey, the medical oncologist who, while vice-president of clinical development at Bristol Meyers Squibb, was indefatigably supportive of Allison’s work. For Humphrey, too, the fight was personal: After losing several members of her own family to the dread disease, she says flatly, “I know cancer is coming for me.”

Ultimately, though, Jim Allison remains the uncontested star of the documentary that bears his name, despite (or maybe because) his most assuredly not looking the part. With his shaggy hair, scraggly beard and occasional appearance in Hawaiian shirts, he looks more at home while wailing with Willie and the boys. But, as “Breakthrough” vividly illustrates, Allison — who’s currently Chairman of the Department of Immunology at Houston’s renowned MD Anderson Cancer Center — has made his mark by casting himself against type.

Film Review: ‘Jim Allison: Breakthrough’

Reviewed online, Houston, Sept. 25, 2019. (In SXSW Film Festival.) MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 91 MIN.

Production: A Dada Films release of an Uncommon Prods. production. Producers: Bill Haney, Jennifer Pearce. Executive producers: Tim Disney, RJ Cutler, Maura McCarthy, Michael Eisenson, Reed Paul Jobs, Sean E. Reilly.

Crew: Director, Screenplay: Bill Haney. Camera (color): Graham Talbot, Nelson Talbot. Editor: Peter Rhodes. Music: Mark Orton, Mickey Raphael.

With: Jim Allison, Sharon Belvin, Rachel Murphy, Malinda Allison, Max Krummel, Eric Benson, Tyler Jacks, G. Barrie Kitto, Pam Sharma, Willie Nelson. Narrator: Woody Harrelson.

More Film

  • Boris JohnsonConservative Party rally on eve

    U.K. Parliament Passes Brexit Law, Leaving Film, TV Incentives Unaffected

    The U.K. Parliament on Wednesday evening passed legislation paving the way for the country to leave the European Union on Jan. 31, 2020. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the U.K. had “crossed the Brexit finish line” following passage of the Withdrawal Agreement, which will officially become law when it receives royal assent from Queen [...]

  • A security guard wears a mask

    Chinese New Year Film Releases Cancelled in Response to Coronavirus

    The releases of all new movies this week in China have been cancelled as a response to the outbreak of the deadly coronavirus. The move is a massive blow for the Chinese film industry. Seven major films were expected to have been released over the coming weekend, with the likelihood that together they would have [...]

  • The Turning

    Film Review: ‘The Turning’

    Director Floria Sigismondi’s “The Turning” is like the alt-rock cousin of author Henry James’ novella “The Turn of the Screw.” From its grunge-infused soundtrack and period setting to its fiery feminist overtones, this is an ambitious contemporary take on the iconic, claustrophobic thriller. Concerning two young orphans who psychologically torment their caretaker in a spooky, [...]

  • Birds of Prey

    ‘Birds of Prey’ Tops Studios’ TV Ad Spending

    In this week’s edition of the Variety Movie Commercial Tracker, powered by the always-on TV ad measurement and attribution company iSpot.tv, Warner Bros. claims the top spot in spending with “Birds of Prey.” Ads placed for the superhero film had an estimated media value of $6.94 million through Sunday for 431 national ad airings on [...]

  • The Witcher Netflix

    Film News Roundup: Netflix Developing Anime Feature 'The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf'

    In today’s film news roundup, Netflix announces a spinoff feature based on “The Witcher,” Liam Neeson’s “Honest Thief” finds a home and Sheryl Main will receive the Henri Bollinger Award. PROJECT LAUNCHED Netflix is expanding its fantasy series “The Witcher” with an anime feature film “The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf.” Popular on Variety The [...]

  • Marvel Studios' CAPTAIN MARVEL..Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel

    'Captain Marvel' Sequel in Development

    Disney has officially launched development of a “Captain Marvel” sequel. The studio is in final negotiations with Megan McDonnell, a staff writer on Marvel-based series “WandaVision” on the project. The 2019 blockbuster “Captain Marvel” starred Brie Larson as Carol Danvers and grossed $1.13 billion worldwide. Disney and Marvel have not yet set a release date [...]

  • Aviron Pictures Hit With Layoffs

    Aviron Pictures Hit With Layoffs, Joel Kinnaman Action Movie 'The Informer' in Limbo

    Fledgling distributor Aviron Pictures has been hit with a significant staff reduction less than a month after the removal of top executive WIlliam Sadleir, numerous insiders told Variety.  Almost half of a staff of 30 were dismissed last week, amid wide rumors that the company’s deep-pocketed financier Black Rock has defunded the outfit entirely, sources [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content