The filmmakers responsible for “Fauci” may appear to be unusually speedy bandwagon jumpers, but there’s more to the timeliness of their feature-length look at Dr. Anthony Fauci than first meets the log line. Directors John Hoffman and Janet Tobias started work on it before COVID was known to exist, having had the idea that he was a fascinating figure just for his role in the AIDS crisis in the ’80s, ’90s and early 2000s. “Fauci” has naturally ended up being a tale of two pandemics, and the battles that can erupt between scientists and activists. One of them even has a happy ending, and, probably needless to say, it’s not the one that has him getting threats from the enemies of epidemiology at the moment.
Probably a minority of viewers for the National Geographic Documentary Films release (set to hit theaters this month) know or remember that the word “Fauci” was once spoken with as much scorn among elements of the left as it now is among the far right. Not long after the film includes an audio snippet of someone from the near-present suggesting that his head should be on a pike, we’re into almost contemporary-looking clips of protesters bearing signs like “Dr. Fauci, you are killing us.”
The issue then was Fauci — whose association with the National Institutes of Health goes back to the 1960s — being seen as dragging his feet on experimental treatments for HIV and AIDS while the death rate from the incurable disease skyrocketed. Then, as now, Fauci was Brooklyn-fearless about taking his folksiness into the lion’s den: Footage of him making a first-time appearance at an Act Up meeting (attended by no less an adversary than Larry Kramer, who’d used the word “murderer”) establishes what a relative cakewalk it must be for Fauci to meet the enemy press with Fox News appearances now.
Still largely centered on the multi-decade AIDS crisis, even with the necessary addition of current developments, “Fauci” veers back and forth in time between the two pandemics, with copious extant footage of a deeper-voiced and darker-haired but otherwise familiar Fauci continuing to meet with his then-critics in the gay community. (One of the catchier slogans uttered on-camera as he was being protested: “No Peptide T, no Compound Q — Anthony Fauci, I piss on you.” Try to come up with something that good, anti-vaxxers of the world.)
It seems like a fairy tale now, at least as presented in the film, but while maintaining that drugs can’t just be rushed into the testing process — he would urge adoption of no cocktail before its time — he came to accept that communities most threatened by a disease can be as smart about what ails them as the white-coat set. Flash-forward to President George W. Bush signing off on a Saturday $13 billion aid package to get AIDS treatments to Africa, and it would have been almost too happy a finale to the movie, as originally conceived, to be true.
So, thankfully for the documentary’s sense of irony and dramatic tension, if unhappily in real life, there’s the added development of the present moment, which has Fauci recounting how he opened an envelope full of fake anthrax, and is the subject of other constant threats, from antagonists seen and unseen with as much of a seeming animus toward book learnin’ as lockdown. “This is a whole new life here,” he says in the opening moments, trying to figure out new security protocols as the Brooklyn in him mutters, “These fucking dark web people are really getting bad.”
Not too much time is spent on his frenemy-turned-greatest adversary of all, former boss Donald Trump, although there’s a mid-2020 phone call where he’s told the White House is responsible for suddenly turning down all his requests to do interviews about nascent vaccine development… one of what must have been many the-calls-are-coming-from-inside-the-house moments.
Not everyone will cotton to the sight of George W. Bush coming on screen as a champion for wiping out AIDS even with Bono on hand to vouch for the former president’s bona fides in listening to Fauci and pretty much just carrying out his wishes toward enacting global solutions. The filmmakers are too polite — or too eager to reach a broad audience — to suddenly bring in disturbing juxtapositions with the don’t-tread-on-me sentiments prevailing on one side of the fence nowadays.
Any further reminders of how public health has become a cynical gladiator sport would drag down what the directors probably intend “Fauci” to partly be: a recruitment tool to incite young people to go into medical research. With the contemporary politics treated a little bit more as a sour side dish than the main course, and one surviving Act-Upper after another tearfully attesting to how activism and science can complement one another, it’s a documentary that merits a place in classrooms as well as theaters, as a preventative against the virus of cynicism.