Review: Oliver Sacks: His Own Life

Year: 2020
Runtime: 114 minutes
Director: Ric Burns

By Joan Amenn

“He was the Hubble telescope of neurology.”

-Temple Grandin

There are rare people who live in such a way as to strike others as perhaps not being quite human. They are so much larger than life, as the cliché  goes, that one has to wonder if there isn’t some outlet they are hiding somewhere on themselves where they plug in at night and receive a surge of superhuman power the rest of us lack. Oliver Sacks was just such a person and his superpower was observation. Not just any observation, but so intense and so compassionate that animal rights activist Temple Grandin describes it as being as formidable as the Hubble telescope. His powers of perception were matched by his way with words so that humanity has been graced with a unique window into the uncharted waters of the human psyche from his many books and essays. He was a pioneer of recognizing that mental illness and mental disorders do not define a human life but simply characterize limits that they often find ways to rise above. In the 1960’s when he first started his work as a neurologist, this was an extremely radical thought. This documentary by Ric Burns does not shy away from depicting its subject in all of his iconoclastic glory.

Copyright: Steeplechase Films, Vulcan Productions

Sacks was pretty much a radical in every aspect of his life. He was born into a medical family in England before World War II. By the age of eighteen he realized he was homosexual but in London of the 1950’s this was a taboo punishable in potentially horrific ways such as was inflicted on Alan Turing. His own mother denounced him as an “abomination” when she learned his secret so he made arrangements to accept a medical residency in San Francisco, California. He arrived in America on his twenty seventh birthday. He was soon embracing the lifestyle of motorcycle racing, beach combing and even weightlifting. As a matter of fact, he set a record for squat lifting six hundred pounds. This was hardly the ordinary routine of a medical intern at the time, but Sacks wasn’t one to embrace the ordinary. He moved to New York and began working with catatonic patients in a Bronx hospital.

This documentary by Ric Burns does not shy away from depicting its subject in all of his iconoclastic glory.

This was where his first brush with fame began. His book, “Awakenings” documented his experiments with treating the unresponsive patients with dopamine. In some instances, they experienced shocking recoveries of their consciousness, speech and mobility. His account was so dramatic that the medical community thought it was “embellished.” Sacks was disappointed but undaunted. His research continued into autism, colorblindness, and agnosia, which is the inability to recognize things such as faces. He also continued to write and slowly he found his audience. Or maybe they found themselves ready to listen to him, because mental illness was a topic society found difficult to discuss. Sacks helped break down the fear and shame of mental illness and disorders by documenting case studies of his patients in a way that revealed how rich their lives were despite their disabilities. They were never just statistics and diagnoses to him.

Copyright: Steeplechase Films, Vulcan Productions

He famously wrote an essay on his terminal cancer diagnosis in the New York Times in 2015. This film was shot while he was working on his last books and essays but it is far from maudlin. It is a sometimes bawdy, sometimes tragic, but always inspiring story about a man who was confused as to his purpose for many years but found his calling simply by focusing his talents in the service of those who needed them most.

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