Dr. Anthony Fauci during an interview at the NIH in Bethesda, MD.

Fauci in his office during filming. (Photo by National Geographic for Disney+)

Alum’s Documentary Profiles Famed Physician Anthony Fauci, MD ’66

John Hoffman ’81 co-directs an intimate portrait of the public health legend and fellow Big Red grad

By Beth Saulnier

“I am the bad guy to an entire subset of people, because I represent something that is uncomfortable for them,” says Anthony Fauci, MD ’66. “It’s called the truth.”

That frank assessment, and many others, is captured in Fauci, a National Geographic documentary about the prominent physician and public health leader. Having debuted at the 2021 Telluride Film Festival, the movie—co-directed by a fellow Cornellian, veteran documentarian John Hoffman ’81—is streaming on Disney+.

The film follows Fauci—the now-81-year-old director of the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases—through several grueling months of mid-2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic is taking hold in the U.S. and tensions with the Trump Administration are rising. It culminates that December, as a COVID vaccine is approved in record time—and Fauci demonstrates his confidence in it by getting his first shot in front of news cameras.

“It’s a documentary that merits a place in classrooms as well as theaters,” Variety says in a review, “as a preventative against the virus of cynicism.”

The film opens with the physician-scientist leaving for work, accompanied by his security detail—vivid proof of how polarizing a figure he has already become. As some megafans are buying Fauci bobbleheads and devotional candles that depict him as a haloed saint, detractors are excoriating him in the media and even threatening him and his family.

“He should be fired, indicted, and thrown in jail—and it’s time we have a revolution in this country,” the anti-vaxxer and conspiracy theorist Shiva Ayyadurai says in a sound bite captured in the film, played over footage of Fauci at his desk. That segues into another from right-wing political strategist Steve Bannon: “I’d actually like to go back to the old times of Tudor England. I’d put the heads on pikes as a warning to federal bureaucrats—either get with the program, or you’re gone.”

The film goes on to follow its subject through some seminal events of the pandemic’s early months—including, as Hoffman puts it, “the first time Dr. Fauci stepped forward to the podium and contradicted the president,” in response to a reporter’s question about the efficacy of the drug hydroxychloroquine.

But it also offers a more intimate portrait, showing him at home with his wife of nearly four decades, the medical ethicist and nurse Christine Grady, and features insights from one of their three adult daughters.

A photo of John Hoffman
Filmmaker John Hoffman (Photo by National Geographic/Visko Hatfield)

“I have no doubt that people who view the film with an open mind will come away from it having tremendous respect for Dr. Fauci’s dedication to service, his intelligence as a scientist, and his compassion as a doctor,” says Hoffman, a six-time Emmy winner, “and they’ll understand him to be the humanist that he is.”

In conducting research for the film, Hoffman and colleagues parsed untold hours of video chronicling Fauci’s past public health efforts, particularly the pandemic that made him a household name: the global HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s and ’90s.

Fauci delves into those fraught, terrifying years, when a positive HIV test seemed tantamount to a death sentence, and activists in the gay community—which was being devastated and further marginalized by the disease—organized and protested to demand access to experimental drugs.

Ultimately, the filmmakers (Hoffman’s co-director is Emmy and Peabody winner Janet Tobias) made the intriguing, revelatory choice to juxtapose the two public health crises, and Fauci’s role in them. They often employ a split screen to show him in eerily similar locales and situations, separated by decades.

Dr. Anthony Fauci and Christine Grady sit at their kitchen table in December 2020.
Fauci and wife Christine Grady at their kitchen table. (Photo by National Geographic for Disney+)

“One of the most remarkable uses of the split screen is where you see Dr. Fauci riding in the same elevator 40 years apart, walking down the same hallway, sitting down at his desk,” observes Hoffman, who took inspiration for the technique from the documentary One Day in September, about the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics. “This is one of our longest-serving public servants, and you see that, at age 80, he has the same energy and determination, the same fierceness of focus.”

In addition to exploring Fauci’s efforts to combat both pandemics, the filmmakers contrast the reactions to them, underscoring the very different roles of protest in the two eras: while groups like ACT UP and Gay Men’s Health Crisis were demanding quicker access to potentially lifesaving treatments and a seat at the policy-making table, COVID-era activism has mainly taken the form of vocal resistance to public health measures like mask mandates and vaccine requirements.

You see that, at age 80, he has the same energy and determination, the same fierceness of focus.

John Hoffman on Fauci

“We’re asking the audience to compare these times, and to think about the purpose behind the protests today,” Hoffman says. “What is the intended outcome? Who is it meant to help? Is it really to advance science, or some other political agenda?”

For Hoffman, revisiting the HIV/AIDS crisis was especially poignant: he lived through it as a gay man in New York City (where he moved after graduating from Human Ecology), and in his late 20s he was an administrator in the HIV/AIDS clinic at what’s now NewYork-Presbyterian.

Says Hoffman: “It was a bizarre experience, emotionally—to be going through COVID in the contemporary sense, but also reliving those days.”

Hoffman’s extensive credits as a documentary director and producer include the HBO series “Addiction,” Discovery’s “Shark Week,” and NatGeo’s “Sleepless in America.” He’d previously filmed Fauci and Grady for the 2017 Discovery series “First in Human,” which chronicles patients in early drug trials at the NIH.

Dr. Anthony Fauci and Christine Grady walk through the  COVID-19 installation "In America, How Could This Happen" in Washington, DC, 2020.
Fauci and Grady walk through an installation in Washington, DC, that comprised white flags memorializing the lives lost to COVID-19. The film juxtaposes it with the AIDS Memorial Quilt project, which began in the mid-1980s. (Photo by National Geographic for Disney+)

While social distancing requirements meant that Hoffman did much of his Fauci work remotely from his home in New York’s Hudson Valley—including interviewing Bill Gates, George W. Bush, and Bono via video—he did travel to the Washington, DC, area a half-dozen times to interview the physician in person.

And what did Fauci—who had no control over the film’s content—think of the finished product? “We held a screening for him and his wife, and they were both very moved,” Hoffman reports. “He thanked us for being critical of him, that this was not a piece of hagiography. He thought it was a very honest portrait.”

Top image: Fauci in his office during filming. (Photo by National Geographic for Disney+)

Published March 15, 2022


Comments

  1. Lei Liu, Class of 2012

    Here in China, people picture Dr. Fauci as the Dr. Zhongnan Shan of the USA (Dr. Zhongnan Shan is a Chinese doctor who gained much publicity during the pandemic). I saw him on social media and on TV in China a lot. I did not know that he is a Cornellian! That’s great.

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