A quick bit of history first. In early 2016, British physician Andrew Wakefield directed a documentary called Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe.
The film detailed his experiences and research in the 1990’s linking vaccine injections to the onset of autism in young children. Initially embraced and then pulled from the Tribeca Film Festival in the spring of that year after a wave of protests and counter claims about the filmmaker’s possible falsified research, Wakefield essentially became an overnight hot button of conversation.
His film did eventually receive a limited theatrical release that year, but the discussions continue to blaze as supporters of Wakefield and his research call him a martyr for his legal/professional woes while his detractors claim he’s a charlatan fanning the flames of parental over-exaggeration.
Regardless of one’s outlook about the scenario, Miranda Bailey’s new documentary The Pathological Optimist will probably not change the perception. If one believes Dr. Wakefield, this film is positive vindication for his tireless dedication to the anti-vaccine movement. If one sides with his critics, it’s only more damning for what it doesn’t show, choosing to propagandize through Wakefield’s endless rah-rah speeches with supporters and sad-eyed interviews with his wife. Either way, the film is a placid and solipsistic journey.
Couched as a sort of prequel to Vaxxed, Wakefield becomes the movie now. Following him as he weaves through years of courtroom battles, television interviews (where he’s especially ripped apart by Anderson Cooper) and quiet discussions with his wife and family, Wakefield does come off as a convincing and generous soul in The Pathological Optimist. It’s clear he believes he’s doing the right thing, even though 11 of the original 13 researchers who wrote the original paper have now rebuffed their work.
What’s not clear is any other angle to the story. There are screen flashes about certain people refusing to talk, naturally. And the big reveals of various court battles are given through the reaction conversation of the family. In another scene, Dr. Wakefield’s separation from an autism lobbying group are explained through ‘not explaining’ due to a signed confidentiality agreement. The nuts and bolts of exactly why and how things happen are not explicit, which layers the film in an especially shallow, often frustrating point of view.
As I’ve said before, the documentary film has evolved into a social arm of protest and examination. When something goes wrong and the legal system (or human nature in general) can’t or won’t justify it, grab a camera and document it for all to experience. The Pathological Optimist follows this rule of thumb. Being disbarred from studying medicine in England and a basic social pariah here in the States now, Dr. Wakefield is striking back any way he can. Cinematically. Visually. Audibly. It’s a respectful move, but one that fails to add insight beyond his social pariah status.
The film opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday, October 13 at the Angelika Film Center in Plano.