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The literal grim reaper is the only one of us not thinking about death more than usual these days, and that’s only because he was already maxed out on mortality. From the state-sanctioned murder of Black Americans to the laundry list of how COVID can kill you, end-of-life grotesqueries met with a stunning lack of empathy are kinda 2020’s thing, you dig? How refreshing it is that Oliver Sacks: His Own Life stands in such diametric opposition to that ugliness.
Although undoubtedly a sloppy wet kiss on the lips of the memory of a man who painfully long chose celibacy over embracing his homosexuality, director Ric Burns’s documentary is more than doe-eyed saint-making. The film uses Sacks’s personal and professional journey to articulate a defense of compassionate storytelling and storykeeping and of advocacy for the marginalized. It also serves as a reminder that, for the lucky among us, death can be little more than shutting a book well read.
Structurally, His Own Life strikes a comfortable balance between first-person accounts from Sacks himself and context provided by the talking heads legally required in all documentaries. The film briskly walks through Sacks’s emergence as a doctor known for cataloguing the experiences of those who are neurologically different. It also chronicles candid insights by the beloved scholar into his familial abuse and struggles with sexuality. Nothing is off-limits here, neither beefcake photos of a young Sacks as a leather-clad biker nor an off-the-cuff memory he has about what he used to do to orange Jell-O. Yes, it’s exactly what you’re thinking.
Undeniably a gesture of turnabout being fair play, Sacks clearly wanted to surrender his life to the kind of probing and preservation he offered to the people he documented for decades. Burns commendably even tackles the profoundly unfair criticism leveled at the neurologist: that he somehow exploited his patients. It is nonsense, of course, as well-known subjects like Temple Grandin adamantly insist Sacks’s engagement with and presentation of them marked the only time many felt truly “seen.”
This, then, is us “seeing” Oliver Sacks, and what is shown is largely beautiful. Not many people smile their way through explaining they have months left to live. Fewer still find a way to make that brief time resonate. If Sacks has a legacy, it is expressed best through Grandin’s fiery insistence that empathetic observation of our fellow humans is at the center of not only science but the definition of who we are and what we ought to be.
The problem with His Own Life is that very little in the documentary itself isn’t better expressed through Sacks’s writing. Talking about, or showing a movie about, a particular thing is just never going to be quite as good as actually experiencing that thing itself. Thankfully, the relative uselessness of the film is rendered less significant by virtue of it being very, very well made and its main character being very, very compelling.
At a moment when the entire notion of looking upon others with compassion is on the precipice of extinction, there are worse ways to spend a few hours than rejoicing in a man who dedicated his life to doing just that.
Grade = B
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Not a whole lot of reviews yet, but Jennie Kermode at Eye For Film loved it, saying “Sacks’ most passionate contention was that helping people had to begin with trying to understand the whole of who they were, not just what was aberrant about them.”
Robin and Laura Clifford’s takes at Reeling Reviews were also quite glowing. Laura too mentions the Jell-O anecdote, while Robin explains “In the hour and 51 minutes we spend with Oliver Sacks, he goes from being this enigma that I knew little about to a guy I grew to like and wanted to keep around.”