Oliver Sacks: His Own Life
Director: Ric Burns
The neurologist and author Oliver Sacks died in 2015, aged 82. He had been diagnosed with cancer at the start of that yet, estimated his time left on this earth as mere “months” and was correct. He was gone by September. The publication of his memoir allowed him to life the lid on some of his life’s stories and to reflect on the many cases he had worked on – so many of them the subjects of several standalone must-reads; famously there was a movie adaptation.
But what we learn from this riveting account, put together with Sacks’ blessing and involvement, a sort of coda to his book/s and featuring up to the minute interviews blended with archival material, is that the man blessed with a nearly endless well of empathy and compassion was borne of trauma.
We may already know some of this story but the movie works as both companion to the memoir and/or any previous knowledge of Sacks and as a standalone – it gets you up to date with the bulk of his achievements, shows the hit-reel of Awakenings – the book turned into a movie starring Robin Williams, touches on the famous Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat and though there’s no real unpacking of the Brand that Sacks became there is a deep look into the difficulties he experienced in adolescence; what made him turn himself into a brand was a desire to run from who he was and/or to run towards who he needed to be.
Sacks was born in England and his parents were doctors – he was gifted, privileged and pressured. His mother – a surgeon – would bring home tissue for her son to examine. He was 9 and 10 years old. She later told him he was an abomination when he came out. He moved to America and rode his motorcycle into the night; two-day trips to see the Grand Canyon, or anything. And exploration of San Francisco’s gay scene in the early 1960s, via the fitness clubs. Then celibacy – and the deep focus on his work.
There are many redemption stories here. The triumph in not only understanding himself but learning to understand human beings and everything that conspires to make us. But there’s also a redemptive arc around acceptance and love.
Sacks was a beautiful man – in so many ways. And this documentary is almost a tear-jerker, but again in the right way. It’s neither forced nor contrived. There’s such an intensity to the man but it’s profoundly moving. And the best parts of this film are too. A must-see.
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