Dr Fauci, movie star - The New York Times

WASHINGTON – It was not quite midday on a sunny Saturday in Washington, and Dr Anthony S. Fauci, famed infectious disease specialist and...


WASHINGTON – It was not quite midday on a sunny Saturday in Washington, and Dr Anthony S. Fauci, famed infectious disease specialist and President Biden’s top medical adviser, was worried about which shirt to wear.

He had just finished a call to the White House, his third Zoom of the day. He hopped onto his back deck with jeans and a red T-shirt under a blue long-sleeved crewneck, wondering aloud if he should change. The last time he was pictured at home, with sunglasses by his pool in his backyard, he said, he faced “a firestorm from the mad far right “accusing him of” trying to be a movie star “.

Now Dr. Fauci – arguably the most famous and polarizing doctor in the country – is a movie star, of sorts. A new documentary titled, simply, “Fauci,” had limited airing this month in 11 cities (in theaters requiring proof of vaccination and masks) and will begin airing in early October on Disney +.

He hid inside and reappeared in a shirt and tie, ready for his close-up – or at least to be photographed for this story. “I can be criticized for being overdressed,” he said, “but I will not be criticized for being underdressed.”

“Fauci”, the film is, for the most part, a bit like Fauci the man: simple and without nonsense. But the film, which follows Dr Fauci through the two infectious disease crises – AIDS and the coronavirus pandemic – which served as the book end of his long career, also reveals his tender and playful side, with old footage family of him shirtless and by the pool. with his kids, or do a wacky daddy dance.

Dr Fauci, 80, joined the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a branch of the National Institutes of Health, in 1968, and has been its director since 1984. For those who have long followed his career, the story of the film is familiar. But his scorching images of his early days – of skeletal men in hospital beds; corpses with attached toe tags; angry protests from AIDS activists who fought him and then befriended him – might surprise a younger generation.

In one of the film’s most vivid moments, Dr. Fauci remembers arriving at the bedside of an AIDS patient who suddenly didn’t recognize him; the man had lost his sight. As Dr. Fauci tells the story, his voice breaks, his lower lip begins to quiver, and his eyes blink. John Hoffman, one of the film’s two directors (the other is Janet Tobias), asks why it affects him now, all these years later.

Dr Fauci stops to recover. “Uhhhhh,” he said finally. “Post-traumatic stress syndrome”. Another long pause. “It is what it is.”

At home, sitting on his back patio next to the hibiscus plant he waters every day (“Tony’s pride and joy,” said his wife, Dr Christine Grady), Dr Fauci seemed relaxed – or as relaxed as possible. the scale of the health crisis it is facing.

He didn’t mince words about the “right-wing assholes QAnon” who threatened him and his family. He recalls clearly asking the film crew not to interfere with their work: “It won’t be, take one, take two, take three on a film set.” He called the end product an “honest, down-to-earth documentary.”

Dr Fauci had no editorial control over the film – a point its promoters are careful to note. Carolyn Bernstein, the executive who oversaw the project for National Geographic, said the filmmakers “didn’t want it to be a hagiography” and “wanted to make sure we tell the warts and the whole story.”

But there are few warts exhibited in “Fauci”. The film is extremely admiring, with cameos from Fauci fans including former President George W. Bush and Bono; they worked closely with Dr. Fauci on Mr. Bush’s government program to combat the global AIDS epidemic.

The only critical voice among those interviewed comes from Apoorva Mandavilli, a New York Times science reporter who writes about the coronavirus and suggests that conservative critics of Dr Fauci may be right when they accuse him of flip-flopping in initially advising the public not to wear masks, and later to reverse themselves. (Dr Fauci says he did this because masks were scarce at the time, and the evidence that they curbed the spread of the disease did not come until later.)

Ms. Tobias was already working on the documentary “Fauci” when the new coronavirus appeared in China at the end of 2019; she had gotten to know him through her work on a 2017 film about pandemics and was interested, she said, “in this idea of ​​him as a longtime public servant at a time when public servants weren’t are not particularly appreciated “.

When the pandemic struck, Dr. Fauci’s likeness was suddenly everywhere – on socks, coffee mugs, prayer candles, cupcakes. His fans tried to name him as People magazine’s sexiest man of 2020. It wasn’t until later that the stardom drawback would emerge.

Mr Hoffman, the other director, who had also worked on health-related films, saw a scorching story and contacted Ms Tobias. Mr Hoffman sifted through archival footage and conducted interviews – 20 hours with Dr Fauci alone – while Ms Tobias moved to Washington, DC, from New York so she could join the Covid bubble of the Dr Fauci and filming safely during lockdown.

“Her security chief and I were doing nose swabs five days a week,” she recalls.

The documentary oscillates between the voices of its critics past and present: AIDS activists wearing models of Dr. Fauci’s bloody head on a stick, chanting “Liar, Fauci!” and call him a murderer. Conservative commentators proclaiming that he should be “fired, charged and thrown in jail”.

While there are parallels between the two eras, Dr. Fauci sees a significant difference. The AIDS activists who attacked him were fighting for their own lives. “I cared about them and they were fighting for a good cause,” he said in an interview at his home. “They weren’t fighting over a conspiracy theory.”

The film features an excerpt from a television interviewer noting that AIDS affects “only a small group of unsavory people”. Dr Fauci strongly opposes this. “These infected people, whether they are homosexuals or intravenous drug addicts, are people,” he says. “People who deserve compassion, who deserve care and who deserve to be concerned. “

It’s Dr. Fauci “as a humanist,” says Hoffman, whom he hopes viewers will remember.

The film doesn’t dwell too much on Dr Fauci’s frequent clashes with former President Donald J. Trump, who called out Dr Fauci “a disaster” and openly played with the dismissal. (He had no authority to do so, as Dr Fauci is not a political candidate.) But the film offers a glimpse of the tensions, when his assistant tells him the White House has rejected requests for a TV interview. because she wants to focus on the economy.

“I don’t understand why talking about vaccines is not important for the economy,” exclaims a frustrated Dr Fauci. “If you get vaccinated, the economy will open up. So what is the problem?”

Few navigate Washington’s media, science, politics and politics with as much art as Dr. Fauci. After advising seven presidents, he is as comfortable on the set of “Meet the Press” or the famous White House Correspondent’s Dinner, as he is in the lab. Mr. Bush notes in the film that Dr. Fauci is “not a politician”.

But Peter Staley, an AIDS activist who also appears in the film, says Mr. Bush isn’t quite right. “He’s not a partisan – that’s a red line for him,” Mr Staley said in an interview. “But he’s a political master.”

Sitting on his back deck, Dr Fauci reluctantly agreed. In Washington, he said, “you have to know which battles to fight, which battles not to fight.” He described himself as a “lowly and humble person” – a claim he admitted his critics would never believe, given his numerous television appearances and his cooperation with filmmakers.

He does interviews, he said, to get his public health message across, and cooperated because he thought it would inspire people to enter the public service. Considering everything that has happened since he agreed to participate – federal authorities recently arrested a man who has repeatedly threatened to kill his entire family – he said he was “a little bit wrong. comfortable about a documentary that introduces me “.

NIH bioethicist Dr. Grady is also uncomfortable; threats have only grown, she said, since Joe Biden became president. She doesn’t think the film will change her mind. “I think there are fans, and there are haters,” she said. “I don’t think there is anyone in the middle.”

Dr Fauci will be 81 on Christmas Eve. Dr Grady says he hasn’t had a day off in 18 months and is “exhausted”. He takes notes for a dissertation, but says he can’t pursue a publishing contract as long as he’s a federal public servant. With the highly contagious Delta variant spreading across the country, he didn’t think about retiring.

“I’m not completely crazy to think that I’m going to do this when I’m 92,” he said. But for now, he said, he’s focused on “ending this pandemic, you know, put it in the rearview mirror, then maybe take a deep breath and think about retiring.”

And with that, he had to go. Another Zoom call on Saturday afternoon was about to begin.

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