In ‘Fauci,’ a big-screen portrait of a pandemic superstar
John Hoffman and Janet Tobias’ “Fauci” is the first big-screen documentary of the nation’s top infectious disease expert and ubiquitous face of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s an intimate portrait of a longtime public servant whose notoriety has risen dramatically — and with that, brought heaps of far-right scorn on the veteran of seven White House administrations.
The film opens in a split screen, with Fauci, who grew up above his family’s Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, pharmacy, walking to his office at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases 40 years ago on one side, and him making the same trip recently on the other. Audio and video clips, meanwhile, play of Fauci’s contemporary detractors. One television news pundit calls for his head on a pike.
“I often use the analog of the Roman forum. There were people throwing roses at him and then throwing garbage,” says Tobias in an interview alongside Hoffman. “We really wanted people to get a sense of what that was like nationally but also what it was like for a human being. It’s very sobering to his wife and daughters deal with the level of threats to him and to themselves.”
To head off possible, maybe inevitable, criticism, “Fauci” is being released with a pointed proviso. A press release on the film reads: “Dr. Fauci 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 was an usual decision for press notes but these are unusual times,” Hoffman says. “Nothing could be left to question or ambiguous.”
National Geographic opened “Fauci” in theaters on Friday, with a debut on Disney+ planned in October. A once wider theatrical release was previously in the cards, but the surge in cases driven by the delta variant forced the filmmakers and studio to reconsider. Taking cues from its subject, “Fauci” is playing only in theaters where proof of vaccination and masks are required for entry.
“When we are doing a film about one of the leading public health officials in the world, we cannot but live up to the standards of that person and group safety,” says Tobias.
That “Fauci” happened at all over the course of the last 18 months is a feat of foresight by the veteran filmmakers. Both had previously made films related to health crises and had a relationship with Fauci. Tobias made the 2017 documentary “Unseen Enemy,” about the viruses and bacteria that could cause a global pandemic. Hoffman, who has documented issues around body weight (“The Weight of the Nation”) and sleep (“Sleepless in America”), embedded for a year with the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center for the three-part Discovery documentary, “First in Human.”
In February 2020, before much of the U.S. had understood the threat of COVID-19, the two filmmakers had already embarked on the film with Fauci’s participation. (Tobias had initially sought a film about him as early as December 2018.) The project unfolded in relative secrecy.
“We tried to be quiet,” says Tobias. “It was also something he said from the very beginning around the more intense period in March (2020). He said: ‘I do not want to draw attention to myself. What I care about is the health of Americans and the rest of the world.’”
Hoffman and Tobias ultimately filmed with the 80-year-old Fauci and his family for about a year, though — because of COVID concerns — they didn’t begin interviewing him until the fall of last year. They ultimately conducted six sit-down interviews with Fauci. The filmmakers’ initial plans to profile a pivotal, lesser-known figure had long before changed.
“By then, of course, it was an incredible story and everyone knew Tony’s name,” says Tobias, whose film lingers on the array of trinkets — bobbleheads, candles, T-shirts — adorned with Fauci’s face, along with an unlikely campaign to make him People magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive.”
What didn’t alter was their aim to contextualize Fauci’s decades of public service and to specifically focus on how the AIDS crisis formed him as a public health official. The film details both Fauci’s empathetic response to HIV victims and his eventual acceptance of anger and frustration from AIDS activists over the slow pace of research.
“We’ve been saying all along: We made a film about a man whose character was forged in HIV and then tested in COVID,” says Hoffman.
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