The Heavy Burden of Being Dr. Anthony Fauci

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National Geographic for Disney+
National Geographic for Disney+

“It reduces my trust in humanity” is how National Institute of Health (NIH) nurse and bioethicist Dr. Christine Grady describes her feelings about the abuse heaped upon her husband, Dr. Anthony Fauci, in Fauci.

For those who’ve grown frustrated with their unvaccinated fellow citizens’ egotism, stupidity, and recklessness, it’s a familiar and relatable sentiment, and one that colors John Hoffman and Janet Tobias’ documentary (in select theaters Sept. 10) about the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden. Driven by interviews with Fauci himself, it’s an insightful portrait of a man who’s dedicated his career to helping solve some of the world’s most serious disease-related crises, as well as a celebration of the selfless courage, compassion, and open-mindedness of a physician who’s stood tall in the face of unjust vilification and threats.

Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, and Lou Dobbs (remember him?) all appear in Fauci, slamming the doctor in various disgusting ways and, in the process, stirring up opposition to the very figure most responsible for guiding the nation through the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. When Fauci describes recently opening an envelope that covered him in white powder, and the immediate thoughts that ran through his head—is this a hoax, anthrax or ricin?—Hoffman and Tobias’ film underlines the constant and immediate danger that Fauci is now in, thanks to a percentage of the population that views him as the embodiment of both the pandemic and the social restrictions required to mitigate it. He’s at the center of a Republican-led maelstrom born from ignorance and insanity, and as he remarks about the global catastrophe that’s still unfolding, “I think we’re going to get through it, but we’re going to get through it in spite of this divisiveness, and this politicization. We’re not going to get through it because of it.”

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Fauci’s opinion is offered up in the context of Fauci’s look at the 1980s-1990s AIDS crisis that consumed the doctor, and which was finally wrestled under control via a combination of good medicine, staunch activism, and two opposing sides learning that collaboration was more productive than combativeness. Peter Staley and other AIDS activists from that era speak candidly about their fight for AIDS attention and action, primarily through the Larry Kramer-led AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), which aggressively made noise in public and scientific spaces in order to oppose prejudice and demand help. Convinced that the government wasn’t doing enough to research and treat the fatal disease—which was largely decried as an affliction that plagued only gay men and women—they saw Fauci as a bureaucrat who didn’t care about the sick and the suffering, and castigated him accordingly.

As Fauci himself explains in a lengthy interview that forms the core of Fauci, he heard that condemnation but soldiered on anyway. Breakthroughs regarding the identification of AIDS as a virus, and how to effectively stymie its growth through a cocktail of drugs, were earned through countless hours of work, and in an environment that became increasingly hostile thanks to the fury of those who were losing loved ones to the disease, and vehement that more could be done to save them. In what would be a turning point in the AIDS fight, in Fauci’s life, and in the history of medical science, Fauci chose to listen to those voices, attending an ACT UP meeting where he went toe-to-toe with his critics, and then speaking on their behalf at a 1990s AIDS conference in San Francisco. In doing so, he charted a new course in which the experiences and input of subjects were taken into greater consideration during clinical trials.

Fauci makes plain the parallels between Fauci’s “bookending” battles against AIDS and COVID-19, along the way depicting a man who’s given his life to the investigation and treatment of the world’s worst ailments. Sandwiched in between those two all-caps epidemics were his clashes with SARS, Swine flu, MERS and Ebola, against which he led the charge. In a telling moment in Hoffman and Tobias’ non-fiction biopic, Fauci says that he sought to destigmatize Ebola by hugging recovered patient Nina Pham at a press conference, and such leadership-through-example is again seen in a late clip of him receiving the COVID-19 vaccine on a stage in front of cameras. Time and again, the individual presented by the film is one who puts others first and takes risks in order to guide and reassure the American public.

He’s also a scientific titan who, having served as adviser to seven presidents (beginning with Ronald Reagan), isn’t afraid to deliver unpleasant truths that many—including his bosses—don’t necessarily want to hear (or, at least, don’t want to hear said into a microphone). Clips of Fauci ruffling Trump’s feathers by pushing back on his hydroxychloroquine nonsense, and setting out a realistic timetable for a vaccine, reconfirm this point, painting him as an honest, candid grown-up in a milieu that’s full of self-interested officials who’d prefer to tell people what they want to hear. It’s clear that he’s made mistakes over the course of his tenure; The New York Times global health reporter Apoorva Mandavilli highlights, for example, Fauci’s confusing mask messaging. Yet the fact that Fauci has now been labeled all manner of undeserved things by right-wing anti-science loons—at great emotional cost to him, his wife Christine, and their three daughters—only accentuates his bravery, resilience, and staunch adherence to reason and evidence.

Since no amount of logical arguments, cajoling or bribery will change the minds of zealous conspiracy theorists, Fauci probably won’t convince skeptics that the NIH bigwig is a paragon of public service. Nonetheless, through a mix of archival footage and interviews that smoothly segue between the past and present, Hoffman and Tobias’ documentary proves a tribute to a legitimate national hero, one whose ambition and resolve are as great as his empathy and thoughtfulness. Even when it skews a bit too heavily toward lionization, the lasting impression left by Fauci is that we’re lucky to have this 80-year-old man on our side.

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