'Fauci' documentary showcases the controversial doctor's wins and shortcomings | Datebook

‘Fauci’ documentary showcases the controversial doctor’s wins and shortcomings

Dr. Anthony Fauci is interviewed at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., for the documentary “Fauci.” Photo: Associated Press

Now 80 years old and the nation’s longest-serving public health leader, Dr. Anthony Fauci has served in seven administrations and led the U.S. responses to the past 40 years of infectious disease outbreaks. He’s been on the front lines of developing strategies to combat Ebola, SARS, avian influenza, swine flu, Zika and HIV/AIDS as head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases — all before becoming the unlikely cultural icon straight-talking us through the current COVID-19 pandemic.

As anyone knows who has been tuned into the news over the past 18 months, Fauci is a no-nonsense, authoritative presence who can be candid to the point of bluntness, even when it means disagreeing with a president.

In the revealing new National Geographic documentary, “Fauci” — in theaters Friday, Sept. 10, and available to stream on Disney+ starting Oct. 6 —  the feisty Brooklyn-born, Jesuit-schooled clinician and father of three describes living by what he calls “my mantra,” which is drawn from his “favorite book of philosophy, ‘The Godfather’”: “It’s nothing personal, it’s strictly business.”

Fauci says these words in the film, right after a montage showing him being maligned by his (mostly) right-wing detractors, called “Dr. Doom” on Fox News and targeted with cries of “Fire Fauci” at a Trump rally.

Review: ‘Fauci’ shows how a mild-mannered infectious disease expert became a cultural lightning rod

Fauci is no stranger to controversy, and the illuminating documentary, which Emmy Award-winning co-directors Janet Tobias (“No Place on Earth”) and John Hoffman shot over during the pandemic, doesn’t shy away from his shortcomings, including the flak he received for not issuing mask guidance earlier. Far more interesting, however, is the way “Fauci,” reveals more than any number of congressional briefings or CNN spots possibly could about how a man known for his all-business ethos stays focused, despite politicization and backlash, on his ultimate goal: saving the most lives possible when mysterious, deadly viruses arrive on our shores.

It’s above all about having an open mind and listening,” said Hoffman, explaining what he grew to see as Fauci’s superpower. “We wouldn’t be here today, in terms of AIDS care and what Fauci did to change the entire clinical trial process, if he didn’t listen, even to those who vilify him.”

“Fauci” director John Hoffman. Photo: Visko Hatfield / National Geographic

Hoffman sat down with The Chronicle in Colorado to discuss the timely project following the documentary’s world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival. He pointed to Fauci’s handling of the HIV epidemic back in the 1980s as crucial to understanding the confident lead scientist we see today.

“Our film, most simply, is the story of a man whose character was forged in HIV and tested in COVID,” Hoffman said.

When HIV was plaguing the nation’s gay community and activist groups like ACT UP were critical of the government for moving too slowly to research and approve treatments, Fauci was the rare scientist who reached out to those condemning him. “Fauci” shows footage of him attending ACT UP meetings and eventually winning the respect of former nemeses like Larry Kramer and activist Peter Staley. Staley remains a friend and confidant to this day and is heard on the phone in a disarmingly casual scene in “Fauci” trying to cajole the doctor into getting a Twitter account after he was silenced on Trump’s vaccine task force.

“Fauci” director Janet Tobias. Photo: Visko Hatfield / National Geographic

“Dr. Fauci was tested in every way possible during the AIDS pandemic, as a doctor, a scientist, a communicator and a leader,” Tobias said. “He really listens, and he learns and adjusts what he does from whatever new science or input he receives. He said to me as we were filming that he is always learning, every day.”

The film highlights a turning point in Fauci’s life, and in the scientific response to HIV, when Fauci spoke at the 1990 International AIDS Conference at Moscone Center in San Francisco. Protesters jammed the streets demanding research funding and transparency, and Fauci gave a historic speech welcoming gay activists into the scientific process.

“They bring a very special insight into the disease,” he said that day.

Fauci received a standing ovation for it, and in the new film he can be seen tearing up watching the old footage. He also gets overcome with emotion when Hoffman asks him to recall the “dark years” of the AIDS crisis, specifically Fauci’s remorse over not being able to save a patient who lost his vision.

“The audience will see that he was caught by surprise that the emotion was so close to the surface,” Hoffman said. “(But) I think Tony instinctively understood that (the film) would only work if he’s completely emotionally available to us as filmmakers. I’m so incredibly grateful to him for being as honest as he was.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci attends an interview at the NIH in Bethesda, Md. Photo: Visko Hatfield / National Geographic

It’s an understatement to call it challenging to shoot a documentary during a pandemic, about the man working around the clock to combat it. Filming began “in the very early days when (COVID-19) testing was just starting, when we were quarantined and learning about isolation pods and bubbles,” Hoffman said. “The DGA (Directors Guild of America) quickly moved to put strict policies in place for how this could be done safely following all the CDC guidelines.”

They shot Fauci in his NIAID office (“where he was often the only one in the building”) and at home with his wife, Dr. Christine Grady, “with a small crew and distancing,” doing all their interviews on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings.

“I wanted to avoid the headline, ‘Filmmaker Infects Tony Fauci,’” Hoffman wrote in a director’s statement.

Dr. Anthony Fauci talks on the phone in his security detail car. Dr.Fauci received security after receiving death threats in 2020. Photo: National Geographic / Disney+

Earlier this summer, Fauci had planned to attend the Telluride world premiere, “but we all felt differently in July (before the delta variant), didn’t we?” Hoffman said, explaining his subject’s absence from the world-famous festival.

“It was probably a pipe dream that Tony would be able to come here, since he’s been warning us about this virus’ spectacular genetic ability to mutate,” he added. “He’s at work where he needs to be.”

“Fauci” (PG-13) opens in select theaters Friday, Sept. 10. Available to stream on Disney+ starting Oct. 6.

  • Jessica Zack
    Jessica Zack Jessica Zack is a freelance writer who regularly contributes stories about film, books and the arts for The Chronicle.