Neurologist, author and generally wonderful human being Oliver Sacks died in 2015 after a months-long battle with cancer. On receiving the news that his prognosis was terminal, he wrote a moving Op-Ed in the New York Times reflecting on his life, his work and what it means to know death is not far away. After a lifetime spent observing his patients and in analysis with a therapist of his own, Sacks approached his final days with the clarity and grace of someone with a unique perspective on the value of every life. Filmmaker Ric Burns chronicles those final months in a new documentary, Oliver Sacks: His Own Life, a beautiful tribute to a beautiful soul.
Filmed over the first half of 2015 (Sacks died at the end of August), His Own Life is as much a retelling of Sack’s life and his winding journey to notoriety, success and ultimate happiness as it is a crash course on the impact his work had (and continues to have) on neurology and bedside manner in medicine in general. In his distinctive British accent—softened only slightly during his 50 years in New York City—Sacks reads his own words from his final book, “On the Move: A Life,” a memoir about the many lives Sacks led in his eight decades on earth. Cut in between is archival footage and photographs, everything from World War II-era family photographs (Sacks was born in 1933 and was sent away as a boy during the war in order to keep safe) to behind-the-scenes footage with Robin Williams on the set of Awakenings (the film version of his groundbreaking book on treatment of patients otherwise thought mentally lost to the world). To complete the package, the film features interviews with dear friends who can speak to Sack’s personal growth over time, from a shy child traumatized by his older brother’s mental illness to a young gay man who finds a community in 1950s San Francisco to a leading neurologist beloved by scientists, doctors, authors and intellectuals alike.
His Own Life has a lot to recount, and Burns makes sure to give it plenty of time to do so; the film clocks in at nearly two hours, but the time flies by with charming interviews with the likes of Robert Krulwich (journalist and host of the popular podcast “Radiolab”) and autism activist Temple Grandin, who charmingly describes Sacks’s work as “astronomy of the brain.” And as they and others shed light on Sacks’s way of seeing the world and his innovative work in neurology, we come to understand just how much difference a bit of humanity can make in every interaction one undertakes. Instead of beginning his work from a place of ambition or achievement, Sacks admirably focused on the potential for connection in every human being. Most notably, he championed connecting with the mentally ill and those in vegetative states, patients others had long since written off as unreachable. His approach, unique in his profession and met with much skepticism at the time, would go on to revolutionize the medical community’s understanding of brain function, including attempts to understand the fundamentals of consciousness and perception.
When Oliver Sacks died in 2015, he left behind a number of books, articles and interviews exploring his findings over the years and fundamentally changing the way medicine diagnoses and treats issues of the brain. As a gentle and compassionate person, he built relationships that lasted decades, from his longtime editor to his late-in-life partner. Now, His Own Life stands as a worthy and thoughtful record of all of it, creating a holistic picture of a man who truly understood how to create a life of meaning.
Oliver Sacks: His Own Life is now streaming at Music Box Theatre’s Virtual Cinema. A portion of your rental goes to support the cinema.