It’s late at night, and I just finished watching the new documentary about Dr. Anthony Fauci, and I thought, let’s call it a day. I can write this column tomorrow. But Dr. Fauci wouldn’t do that. His days are immeasurably long and productive, just like his life. So I decided to write.
The film is appropriately and simply titled Fauci. Your first thought is Why would the title need to say anything else? That name is perhaps the most recognizable in the United States right now, if not the world. But really, it’s merely called Fauci because the list of adjectives that might be strung together for something more descriptive would make the title entirely too long.
I came away from the documentary with four words that might define Dr. Fauci the man: passionate, committed, devoted, and caring. He’s also a fighter, a listener, a thinker, and a provocateur. He’s infectious (no pun intended), humorous (the irony of infectious would not be lost on him), and conscientious (patients always come first).
You get the sense of the very touching and emotional side of the man several times during the film. Each time he talks about his fight to find a treatment and cure for HIV, he considers and emotes about all that was lost. At one point, he’s overcome. There are tears and no words from him for a long stretch of time. That was difficult to watch. And when he’s asked by one of the directors why he cries some 40 years later, Fauci shrugs and says, “Maybe PTSD?”
Fauci is certainly battle-scarred, but he’s also remarkably personable, considering all that he’s been through. I feel extraordinarily lucky to have spoken to him several times, and on two occasions we discussed his unmatched history with HIV. The first column was about his relationship with Larry Kramer and how HIV mirrors COVID-19. For another piece, we talked about his 40-year history with HIV. All the superlatives I showered on him in these earlier columns were evident during our calls.
The first time I talked to him, our conversation ended on a lively note. It was on the day he was to throw out that infamous first pitch at the Washington Nationals game during the summer of 2020. He had been on CNN and with Jake Tapper prior to our call. Tapper advised Fauci to throw the pitch between home plate and the pitcher's mound. “Sixty feet, six inches is a long way,” Tapper warned.
I was up next, and as a fellow baseball fan, I told Fauci that Tapper was right, and he needed to adhere to his advice. Fauci told me he was fine and that he’d been practicing throwing the ball in the backyard, and I groaned. Unfortunately, I saw that wild pitch coming.
When I spoke to him afterwards, I asked him if he might get a redo from the Nationals. “Oh, probably not. As you know, that’s a once-in-a-lifetime shot,” he said. So this summer, I took it upon myself to reach out to the Nationals asking them to give him a second chance, and they wrote back with a wonderfully kind note, thanked me for reaching out, and said they agreed. If anyone deserves another try, certainly it’s Dr. Fauci.
The next time Fauci and I chatted, I broke down and told him it wasn’t very often that you get to talk to one of your heroes. I also thanked him profusely for all he’s done regarding HIV and shared something deeply personal with him. I stopped myself at one point and said, “You must hear this all the time.” “It never gets old, John,” he replied with warmth and sincerity.
I say all this because when you talk to him, he is sincere to a fault. You genuinely feel like you’ve made a friend. Which is why, when the film talks about the cruelty, insults, and death threats leveled at him, you become enraged for your friend. It’s infuriating to see how Rand Paul, Donald Trump, Fox News, and “the base” try to destroy Anthony Fauci, a legitimate American hero; however, with that passion, devotion, and commitment, he ignores it all, plows ahead, and continues to do his job, which is quite literally about saving lives.
I spoke with legendary ACT UP activist Peter Staley, who is featured in the film, along with the documentary’s directors, Janet Tobias and John Hoffman, about what they came to realize about the man they focused on for nearly a year.
Tobias first met Fauci while shooting the pandemic film Unseen Enemy in 2017. The next year, she began a broader project on the HIV vaccine and trials going on in South Africa. In the development of that project, she said, “Why, Dr. Fauci, has no one done a film about you? Your story from the HIV/AIDS epidemic to now is incredible.”
“We started shooting the film in the fall of 2019, and it took us 16 months to complete, so we filmed through the pandemic. Talk about serendipity,” Tobias explained.
Hoffman, who is gay, made a film for PBS way back in 1987 called AIDS: Changing the Rules, which was the first nationally broadcast HIV prevention film.
I asked both Hoffman and Tobias what they wanted people to know about Dr. Fauci.
“We have said that the film is about a man whose character was forged by the HIV/AIDS crisis and tested by the COVID pandemic,” Hoffman said. “The majority of the American public learned about Dr. Fauci through COVID. They’re not aware of his history. His career is defined by the two great pandemics. The film is less a biography and more a portrait of a man.”
Tobias added that they were both fascinated by the idea of Fauci as a public servant. “He has led the way for all of the infectious diseases of our time,” she said. “He really illustrates how valuable it is to be a public servant and the special meaning of being a public servant.”
What was it that most surprised Hoffman and Tobias? “I agree with you about him being a good listener, and I was surprised by that since a lot of leaders aren’t,” Tobias said. “Also, he is exceptionally well-grounded. He has a small circle of people around him, his coworkers, friends, and family, who he trusts and who challenge him.”
“I think his willingness to be emotional on camera was surprising,” Hoffman pointed out. “When we were making the film we gathered an enormous number of archives, probably over 1,000 interviews Tony had done over the past 40 years, and he never cried on camera. Going in, we didn’t know what we were going to get; however, Tony knew this interview had to be fundamentally different from anything he had done. We were amazed when the questions about AIDS took him back in time so fully, and I think he was caught by surprise. He didn’t try to compose himself.”
Staley met and knew Fauci during that difficult time. I asked him what his first impression was when they met nearly 40 years ago. “I got the full picture of what people get today, since he is much like who he is, and hasn’t changed a whole lot,” Staley said. “You get what we call the whole Fauci — he’s personable, casual, exudes friendliness and an upbeat optimism. At the same time, you also realize you’re dealing with a scientist who knows his stuff. He is a very real person, a real conversationalist, and incredibly funny.”
What was most shocking to Staley was that Dr. Fauci actually took care of AIDS patients at the National Institutes of Health. “That’s one thing he never told us back then, that he had seen dozens and then hundreds of HIV/AIDS patients that were in his care,” Staley said. “He never played that emotional card with us.
“It was only three or four years ago, and I was having dinner at his house, and I got to witness his PTSD moment. Then it made sense. He lost people, and he went through what we did. We all share PTSD from those early and tragic days of the AIDS crisis, from activists, doctors, nurses, health professionals. We all have some damage from those years.”
Staley has remained friends with Fauci through the years, and especially lately during the pandemic. “We got to a new level during COVID,” the activist said. “I was reaching out to him out of concern and kept checking in on him to make sure he was OK. We have a very special relationship, and I’m honored to be his friend.”
Has Dr. Fauci ever told Staley if he plans to retire? “He told me, at least before COVID, he was hoping to go when he turned 85. He wants to try and make sure that he is successful in developing an HIV vaccine, so he’s going to probably need all those five years to make progress on that.”
Tobias added that Fauci is also laser-focused and committed to getting America to the other end of COVID-19.
I wondered if Fauci had seen the film and what his reaction was. “He was very happy,” Tobias said. “He and his wife saw it on the big screen at National Geographic headquarters, and I can’t imagine what that’s like to see yourself like that. His daughters were also very happy.”
He told both Hoffman and Tobias that he was grateful that they didn’t make him out to be perfect. “You showed I had flaws,” he said, according to Tobias. To which I responded, “I wish I had his flaws.”
When Fauci is asked, toward the end of the film, what he would want historians to say about him, he pauses for a moment and says, “That guy was pretty good.” You can add understated to the list of attributes that describes a guy who is much more than pretty good.
Fauci, a National Geographic film, was released in theaters Friday. And it’s important to note that Dr. Fauci had no creative control over the film. He was not paid for his participation, nor does he have any financial interest in the film. See the trailer below.
John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.