Retirement age doesn’t apply to the increasingly legendary Dr Anthony Fauci, who at 80 years old continues in US public life like a benign version of J Edgar Hoover, or maybe like a supreme court justice. This documentary from National Geographic gives him something like the Ruth Bader Ginsburg treatment. Fauci is the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, having taken up that post in 1984 and served under seven presidents (so far), from Reagan to Biden; he is now at the vanguard of the fight against Covid-19, and is the rational conscience of America when it comes to calmly facing down the political anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers encouraged by Trump.
This is a celebratory film, and it’s easy to agree with its praise for Fauci’s intellectual heroism, especially when reactionary anti-science charlatanism is running rampant across the internet and the political right. But the documentary maybe doesn’t nail the historical paradox at its centre: Fauci has been vilified twice in his life, from different directions. During the Aids crisis of the 1980s, he was hammered by Act Up for not doing enough, and during Covid, he is hammered by the Maga-ites for doing too much. Gay activists said he was part of a conventional hetero establishment that proceeded cautiously against Aids, not taking it seriously as a public health emergency; Trumpites say he is part of the big government establishment that’s all too active in curtailing liberties.
The film wants to put Fauci on the right side of history both times. On Aids, it points out that Fauci was the one who met with activists and was instrumental in making sure that LGBT voices were finally heard – but it also stresses that you can’t go too quickly and you can’t magic up results with wishful thinking, a point Fauci later tried impressing on Trump even as the president fantasised about bleach cures. But the film also suggests that America’s doctors learned something about responsiveness from the Aids crisis. So can you accelerate the arrival of treatments and cures as a matter of public policy and political will, or not? And if so, could it be that explanations are still owing from the 80s? Well, Fauci is a refreshing figure and a standard-bearer for the truth.
• Fauci is released on 17 September in cinemas.