‘Fauci’ Film Review: Documentary on COVID Fighter Emerges as a Portrait of Public Service

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As COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc on life as we know it, political perceptions have become more polarizing than ever. An initially promising vaccine rollout to battle the greatest public health crisis of our time has turned nightmarish, with anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers doubling down on their defiance.

Somehow, the National Geographic documentary “Fauci,” about the most prominent person to emerge from the early stages of the pandemic, anticipated this climate, wisely incorporating that skepticism and even hatred. As such, “Fauci” feels incredibly current and necessary.

While the pandemic is still relatively young, as fast as the news cycle moves, a documentary — even one that appears as quickly as this one — can still feel dated. At the beginning of this ordeal, some may recall, most of the nation positively embraced Dr. Anthony Fauci. Therefore, it would have been understandable, and even to some extent factual, for the filmmakers to travel that route. Fortunately, Emmy-winning directors John Hoffman and Janet Tobias have shrewd sensibilities.

Neither is a stranger to science-centered documentaries: In 2017, Tobias directed “Unseen Enemy,” exploring the threat of infectious diseases and pandemics. The following year, Hoffman was an executive producer of the “Ebola” episode of the TV series “Invisible Killers.” While their experience tackling infectious diseases in this format is impressive, their ability to balance out the science and to explore Anthony Fauci, the man, father, and husband, is what resonates most effectively, and perhaps most accurately.

Throughout “Fauci,” it’s quite clear that he is anchored by his love for science, particularly infectious diseases. Perceptively, the filmmakers realize that most people have no idea who Anthony Fauci really is, what his credentials are, and just how dedicated he has been to this field. As a remedy, they weave those details into the general narrative. Impressively, they manage to illustrate how this kid from Brooklyn found his way into the world of infectious diseases and rose to become one of the world’s preeminent immunologists and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases without ever losing sight of the crisis at hand. 

The film draws valuable connections between Dr. Fauci’s experience tracking and battling HIV to his pursuit of the coronavirus. Even his unicorn status as a premier medical advisor to multiple presidents, of multiple party affiliations, over several decades, underscores his unique qualifications to lead during this global catastrophe.

But “Fauci” doesn’t shy away from controversy. His difficulties in working with President Donald Trump are not ignored, nor is the current public backlash against him, as well as during the HIV crisis. To its credit, “Fauci” illustrates how Dr. Fauci has been down this road before, while also reflecting upon the added dimension fame has brought to his life and career. (Unofficial Fauci-branded socks and candles are just small samplings of his cult status.)

At its core, “Fauci” is clear that this work is public service, and not for the faint of heart. The film drives home the point that Dr. Fauci’s expertise makes him arguably more equipped to go the distance than anyone else. And he has done so, particularly over the past year, through tremendous sacrifice. His daughter Jenny Fauci speaks to some of that personal cost, putting them in the same boat with so many families who have had to cope with COVID-19 in one way or another over the last two years. The doctor’s knowledge has not shielded him from the difficulties brought on by this crisis.

Yes, there is star power in the form of Bill Gates and a few others. Respectfully, however, none of the razzle-dazzle is essential to “Fauci.” Instead, the intention is to provide a candid portrait of the man to whom so many have turned for leadership. Some critics might dismiss “Fauci” as hagiography, which it is not.

Although he is interviewed extensively in the documentary, Dr. Fauci, the filmmakers note, “had no creative control over the film. He was not paid for his participation, nor does he have any financial interest in the film’s release.” That matters in an era where heroes have been so hard to find.

Regardless of your political leanings or affiliations, “Fauci” is an education on what civil service looks like. And Dr. Anthony Fauci leads the pack.

“Fauci” opens in U.S. theaters on Sept. 10, and premieres on Disney+ on October 6.