Film Review: OLIVER SACKS: HIS OWN LIFE (directed by Ric Burns; now available on Kino Now)

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by Connor McCormick on December 22, 2020

in Film


I suppose it doesn’t sound quite stimulating for a documentary. The subject is a scientific historian and neurologist who made a career of observing people and nature writing about them. He became quite famous later in life, especially when he published, in 1985, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and in 1990 saw the filmed adaptation of his book Awakenings come into being, but it fascinates to discover in Ric Burns’ triumphant documentary, Oliver Sacks: His Own Life (available on Kino Now after a theatrical release) how a man who seemed destined to annihilate himself with drugs and erratic behavior, would become a respected author and scientist.

Sensitive and honest, the film begins after Sacks receives a diagnosis of metastasized liver cancer, just after he has finished writing his memoir. Burns comes in a month later and for eight months recorded 80 hours of the exquisitely learned and avuncular man until his death in 2015. From his childhood in London through college at Oxford, we learn of his doctor parents and schizophrenic older brother. After being condemned by his close mother for being gay, Sacks heads to the West Coast for a diet of weightlifting, amphetamines and motorcycle riding — a lifestyle which made him undependable in working situations. After tempering his wild ways in 1966, he turned to authoring his study on the case histories of patients whose vegetative states had been caused by the epidemic of sleeping sickness that occurred globally between 1916 and 1927. Sacks began to treat several patients with L-Dopa, which had been used to treat Parkinson’s disease, and the results were dramatic. Patients who had been essentially comatose, some for decades, were suddenly able to stand, walk, clap, and speak. With 16 books and a treasure trove of archival material, Sacks and his colleagues unexpectedly tell a tale of redemption, acceptance, fortitude, and kindliness. These features have also infused Brian Keane’s gorgeous soundtrack, which support the film with beautiful majesty — perfect for the subject.

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