Oliver Sacks is a jack-of-all-trades. Throughout different chapters of his life, he’s been a neurologist, a weightlifter, a motorcyclist, a homosexual, and a drug addict. In Ric Burns’ captivating new documentary Oliver Sacks: His Own Life, each of those characteristics are highlighted, along with others, into a seamless timeline of his life.
Burns’ new documentary revolves solely around Sacks, who moved from the United Kingdom to the United States in 1965. In America, he began his career as a neurologist in the Bronx. Not leading a conservative life, the film spotlights the several transformations within his career and existence.
Many label Sacks as unconventional, or outright bizarre; he even brands himself “steadily unstable”. Through his direction, Burns makes it very clear that this is what made him brilliant. The way he practiced medicine was eccentric but life changing for so many people. One of his most shocking studies involved patients in vegetative states and their “awakenings” in response to a medication called L-dopa. Audiences will be inspired when they witness footage of patients who had not been able to move for years finally stand on their own two feet.
If Oliver Sacks and his findings sound familiar, it may be because this is not the first film created that revolves around his work. In 1990, the narrative drama Awakenings from director Penny Marshall was released, which is based on his 1973 memoir of the same name. Starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro, it focuses on Sacks’ drug studies involving L-dopa and the amazing results they generated. Awakenings was praised by critics, and received three Oscar nominations from the Academy including Best Picture.
Battling homophobia and cruel responses to his sexuality is one of many things that shaped Sacks into who he was. The documentary revisits this harsh reality as the relationships—within his family as well as with other men—in his life frequently suffer at the hands of him being openly himself. Voiceovers are heard from Sacks, in which he heartbreakingly details some of these experiences. The vulnerable nature of these stories help listeners connect to him in a very tangible way, which is something not every documentary accomplishes in under two hours.
Being dismissed for who he was never deterred Sacks from trying to find innovative ways to care for others. The movie covers the multitude of times the scientist faced rejection and used those moments to become a better doctor. For his schizophrenic brother, his parents, and his patients, he always enveloped himself in research and empathy. The picture hammers down the fact that this was the driving force behind his countless achievements in neurology.
A perfect word for the documentary is intimate. Interviews from his colleagues and long-term friends are displayed during the entire runtime. Viewers are able to listen to the people closest to a fascinating man recount moments they had together, and hardships they endured. Burns also includes photographs of Sacks’ metamorphosis throughout his life, videos of Oliver with his patients, and reenactments of situations he found himself in. Viewers will feel very cozy, as if they are watching a movie about a close friend or relative.
The picture touches on a handful of the ailments he studied. These include migraine, Parkinson’s, inability to recognize faces, Tourette’s and countless others. With his many breakthroughs, Oliver never stopped writing books and case studies reporting his findings, adding much to the neurology community.
From Ansel Adams to Andy Warhol, Ric Burns has a knack for directing gripping documentaries revolving around incredible subjects. Knowing this, it is no wonder as to why he decided to pay homage to Oliver Sacks’ life.
Keep an eye out for an Oscar nomination—and hopefully a win—for the motion picture. A nomination in Best Documentary Feature would be a victory, but a win in the same category feels more than warranted.
Viewers will find that they will each take something different away from Oliver Sacks and the life he lead. Ric Burns does a beautiful job of retelling the life story of a pioneer in the medical field with such dignity and grace. Regardless of your interest in neurology or the field of science, you will be left with a heartwarming feeling after a tumultuous story is told. Keep an eye out for Oliver Sacks: His Own Life and their virtual premiere on Kino Marquee and Film Forum Virtual Cinema on Sept. 23.