The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Can the new ‘Fauci’ documentary find an audience after so much pandemic fatigue?

Anthony S. Fauci in a scene from “Fauci,” a documentary about the nation’s top infectious-disease specialist’s journey through the pandemic. (National Geographic/Disney Plus)
5 min

“Fauci,” the new National Geographic documentary about Anthony S. Fauci airing on Disney Plus, kicks off in a fairly surprising way: with a chorus of skeptical, even contemptuous sound bites about the longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

“Tony Fauci has not been elected to anything. He’s had the same job for nearly 40 years. That means the majority of American voters never even indirectly picked him,” says one commentator. “Yet in the last four months, Fauci has become one of the most powerful people in the world.”

Another: “Did he get ventilators prepared? Did he get masks prepared? Did he get gloves prepared? No! He did nothing!”

Lou Dobbs, pictured speaking on-screen among a panel of Fox personalities and guests: “He’s running for something. Does anybody know what?”

Interspersed between these clips are other scraps of audio praising or defending Fauci. And by the time the opening sequence has concluded, “Fauci” directors Janet Tobias and John Hoffman have more or less established where their documentary sits within the ongoing conversation about the currently best-known scientist in the world: It aims to acknowledge and enlighten those who think of Fauci as just a guy who came out of nowhere in 2020 and began laying down the rules of the coronavirus pandemic on an apparent power trip.

The film, which began streaming Wednesday, succeeds in offering a humanizing, at times lionizing, look at the man who has served as the director of the NIAID since 1984. Toggling between archival video and recent footage (including talking-head interviews shot during the pandemic), it sheds light on a controversial early chapter of Fauci’s long and venerated career — the AIDS epidemic — and offers a glimpse into his sleepless, anxious private life over the past 18 months.

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Trouble is, it’s difficult to imagine those whose perspectives would be most affected by such a film voluntarily giving an hour and 45 minutes of their lives to see it. That’s especially true of its airing on Disney Plus, the 18-month-old streaming platform that endured a backlash for adding age restrictions to several older movies because of cultural insensitivity and inspired the hashtag #CancelDisneyPlus among conservatives when actress Gina Carano was fired from “The Mandalorian” after she compared being a Republican in the United States to being Jewish in Nazi Germany.

When “Fauci” delves into Fauci’s complicated role in the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and ’90s, it tracks his trajectory with admirable attention to nuance. Fauci, now 80, was sticking his neck out, so to speak, when he became one of the first researchers in the world to devote resources to studying it, the film points out. “I wrote an article in 1981 saying that if we think this disease is going to stay confined to a very discrete group of people, we’re kidding ourselves,” he says in an interview. “I submitted it to a major journal. They rejected it because one of the reviewers said I was being too alarmist.”

Still, the film also chronicles in detail — and in good faith — why AIDS activists eventually turned against Fauci: Bodies were piling up, and Fauci, activists argued, hadn’t worked fast enough or researched enough potentially promising treatments to keep them alive. (That said, the documentary relishes the moment when Fauci manages to facilitate dialogue between the activists and the medical field and adds a brief, heroic coda about his role in getting vastly expanded American aid for the AIDS crisis in Africa.)

“Fauci” also does an admirable job of finding new insights into the NIAID director’s private life during the pandemic, a time when his professional life was unfolding minute by minute on broadcast TV. The documentary emphasizes that the pandemic has been an especially difficult time for him. When he contradicted President Donald Trump on live television during a news conference, for example, Fauci says, he knew in the moment that it could lead to his never returning to the White House — that his career or legacy could be in jeopardy. He also reveals in footage from a 2020 Zoom meeting that he hasn’t gotten a good night’s sleep “in a very, very long time. I’m waiting until the first person enters into the Phase 3 trial.”

Fauci’s oldest daughter, Jenny, tells the filmmakers that the backlash to her father’s work during the pandemic has taken a far more personal toll than during the AIDS epidemic.

“For me and my sisters, this was really, really, really new territory. We had heard what he had been through in the HIV/AIDS pandemic, like, seeing signs: ‘Fauci’s a murderer,’ ” she says. “I remember asking him, ‘Is this what it was like? Was I just not old enough to understand that this is what it was like?’ His response was something like, ‘You can’t even compare the two.’ ”

In one poignant moment, Fauci is seen at home in summer 2020, taking a phone call from Peter Staley, a former Act Up activist who was once arrested during an AIDS protest outside the NIAID and later befriended Fauci. Staley mentions in an interview with the filmmakers that he’s taken to calling the scientist, just to talk. “When he became this target,” Staley says in an interview, “I just kept checking in.” On this particular night, a discouraged Fauci tells Staley that his wife and daughters are being harassed; they’re getting phone calls day and night, and his wife has even changed her number.

“These f---ing dark-Web people, they’re really getting bad,” Fauci says.

It is, naturally, the “dark-Web people” who might benefit the most from this peek at Fauci’s public past and personal present, those who question his qualifications or doubt his motives. See? This man has guided the American public out of a dark and hopeless public health crisis before, “Fauci” seems to say. See? He’s really in this for the right reasons; he’s making sacrifices to his own well-being to serve the public.

Watching documentaries, however, is even less compulsory than complying with public health guidance. So “Fauci” the film, much like Fauci the scientist, may see its messages fall on willfully deaf ears.

Fauci (104 minutes) is streaming on Disney Plus.

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