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.
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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.