At a delicate moment during the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Anthony Fauci thought there was a chance he might die. No, it wasn’t because he found out he had the deadly virus that’s killed more than 4.5 million globally. It was because he opened the wrong envelope delivered to his address.
After opening said envelope, a white powder exploded and spread all over Fauci, and in an instant, the doctor and medical advisor recounts his three options on the table. It could be a hoax, so the situation would be scary but manageable. It could be anthrax, which would hospitalize him and require a medical remedy. Or it could be ricin, which means he would already be a goner due to exposure.
Thankfully, it was just a cruel prank, likely sent by one of the plethoras of pandemic response detractors he’s gathered by becoming the public face of the U.S. response to COVID-19. Fauci lived to tell the story, one that underscores the lofty stratosphere this man has entered during this otherworldly time.
Fauci, National Geographic’s effort to tell the doctor’s story for a general audience, might get accused of hagiography association. It’s hard to discuss such a pillar in modern American culture without discussing Fauci, the symbol, first. The one anointing candles, being played by Brad Pitt on Saturday Night Live, appearing seemingly daily on network news, and throwing pitches at MLB games. That’s the Fauci that’s guided many throughout the pandemic through the media filter that paints our understanding of daily events.
He’s the most divisive man in America not named Donald Trump or Joe Biden, seemingly by being the main American scientific voice trying to make sense out of one of the strangest and most tragic periods in global history. It’s a lot for any one man to shoulder, and Fauci wisely understands that that’s the guy we need to understand first and foremost.
By weaving two narratives together, the one happening as filming commenced during the pandemic and the one that happened that led Fauci to medically steer the U.S. response to the HIV/AIDS crisis, Fauci tries to show the globe on its Atlas’ shoulders. Frankly, it’s almost impossible to make a documentary like this work when the main subject is such a present, ongoing part of what’s still happening right this moment and make it feel rigorous enough to push past a puff piece. On its face, it might seem like that’s what Fauci is, an attempt to honor a nice-enough guy who’s, of little fault of his own, become too political for his own good.
Still, what directors John Hoffman and Janet Tobias do show you is that the actual Fauci is probably a lot more generous, empathetic, self-effacing, and boundary-pushing than any puff piece could attempt. As any good scientist will tell you, the truth is in the proof, and Fauci does a spirited job proving that heroism isn’t always going to fit on a t-shirt, or on a meme swiping at people you disagree with politically. Fauci is a flawed man like any of us, prone to making mistakes and needing additional perspective.
What seems herculean of any leader right now is a willingness to listen, to adapt and change, to show respect and empathy to those who vehemently disagree with you. The documentary makes a compelling case for how Fauci’s binders full of evidence backing up his ability to do just that in his current position of power. You can’t take a guy like that for granted, particularly during moments of deep panic and confusion.
While the pandemic material might seem a bit like a rehash through no fault of the documentary (we’re starring in the eventual COVID-19 movie right now), going back and seeing how Fauci made headways with the HIV/AIDS activists gives the documentary its heart and staying power. It’s not widely known that, toward the start of that terrible crisis, Fauci was Public Enemy No. 1 for organizations like Act Up, a purposefully radical group trying to push the U.S. government to consider alternative paths for cures.
Rather than fold his arms and ignore the vitriol, Fauci stepped across the battle lines and eventually worked to give a voice within the scientific community to those suffering from the dreaded disease. It was the right thing to do, but as we see time and time again, our leaders often forsake that simple concession, to show humility in the face of criticism, even anger. Those are virtues worth celebrating.
While Fauci has certainly put himself in a position of immense scrutiny voluntarily, it’s hard not to empathize fully with the burden he carries being the scientific face of the moment we live in right now. Through intimate b-roll, we see brief glimpses of the frustration, the exhaustion, the attempt to find some normalcy for a guy who is very clearly living in a world that’s anything but normal. It’s downright compelling to get this all happening in real-time, as Fauci continues to try and make scientific sense of what’s happening around us.
He’s not always going to get it right, but that’s the catch-22 of being a scientist. You’re the one who makes the first mistake, only to find the eventual answer. Rather than just emptily praise a good man, Fauci tries to really add some valuable context into exactly why this guy is worthy of the plaudits. As it turns out, some folks in positions of power really are just decent public servants who are trying to make a genuine difference. In such polarizing times, reminders like that are beyond needed.
Fauci is now available to stream on Disney+. Watch the full trailer here.