Film & TV

Fauci, a Phony Big-Screen Doc

Dr. Anthony Fauci speaks to reporters after briefing Senators on the coronavirus outbreak in China on Capitol Hill, January 24, 2020. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
Deconstructing National Geographic’s propaganda pitch

You might be one of those people who never want to see Anthony Fauci’s face on TV again — or not. But it’s likely that the man himself will be broadcast and rebroadcast continuously, using the power status that Fauci has attained to further the current administration’s COVID protocols. There’s no better insight into this ideological puffery than the publicity campaign for the new documentary Fauci. This fascinating aspect of film culture is crafty and demands close scrutiny.

Presented by National Geographic, the same outfit responsible for Genius, the other Aretha Franklin biopic, Fauci is being sold with similar veneration. It’s not a film about science but about “following the science” of public leadership — as when politicians assert cant such as “Don’t question my authority.” You don’t expect cant from NG. The trust built up from decades of that iconic yellow-framed print magazine, with its vivid photographs of natural phenomena, makes us susceptible. NG’s film division is now the opposite of informative and wide-ranging; its political bias now resembles NPR’s. The Fauci doc typifies the continued narrowcasting of popular media into the congealed “mainstream” perspective.

And the pitch behind Fauci shows how. NG sneaks past old presumptions about the idea of “documentary.” (Blame the genre’s degeneration on Rob Reiner’s fictitious This Is Spinal Tap, where popularizing “factoids” — familiar legends and speculations — rather than truth created that new phony genre of the “mockumentary.”)

The selling of Fauci mocks our credulousness, increased by high-pressure COVID-19 fear-mongering, another advertising phenomenon. Fauci’s press release urges viewers (and media hacks) to accept the doc on the filmmakers’ non-objective terms: “With his signature blend of scientific acumen, candor, and integrity, Dr. Anthony Fauci became America’s most unlikely cultural icon during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Gullible reviewers are unlikely to suspect this seemingly innocuous description: “A world-renowned infectious disease specialist and the longest-serving public-health leader in Washington, D.C., he has overseen the U.S. response to 40 years’ worth of outbreaks, including HIV/AIDS, SARS, and Ebola.” The doc leans on Fauci’s role during the AIDS crisis to suggest he’s empathetic. (He’s shown reading the New York Times, quoting The Godfather, bragging about his Brooklyn roots.)

Scamming media naïfs, the release boasts the doc’s exclusivity, claiming that it’s “crafted around unprecedented access to Dr. Fauci.”

That should be the giveaway for any sharp viewer not on the NG payroll. The word “access” means collaboration from a brigade of celebrities. The lineup of their names makes for the release’s most startling clause:

The film features insights from former President George W. Bush, Bill Gates, Bono, former national-security adviser Susan Rice, National Institutes of Health director Dr. Francis Collins, former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Tom Frieden, journalists Laurie Garrett and the New York Times’ Apoorva Mandavilli.

These aristocrats affirm Fauci’s bona fides and give tribute. They’re what gossip columns call “boldface names,” and they’re also all partisan, as is the film’s tagline: “a revealing portrait of one of our most dedicated public servants.”

As so many media outlets have done, NG dispenses with the old journalism rule of balance. It refuses to be thoroughly informative. Fauci was directed by John Hoffman (Sleepless in America) and Janet Tobias (Unseen Enemy) — woke doc-makers now come in gender-posturing pairs. So do Fauci’s producing partners: Alexandra Moss (Not Done: Women Remaking America) and executive producers Dan Cogan (Icarus) and Liz Garbus (The Farm: Angola, What Happened, Miss Simone?), a veteran from the old days when docs probed for information about not-obvious subjects.

Anthony Fauci has become one of the most contentious personages in the history of American politics and medicine, but the press announcement avoids any challenges to the film’s agenda. There’s no indication that Fauci’s health policies provoke even an iota of displeasure or opposition. His fame is promoted in connection with his political tenure. That list of D.C. wonks attest Fauci’s careerism (implicitly his “brilliance”), while there’s no mention of the gain-of-function controversy — his deceit about directing research funds to the very lab in Wuhan from which COVID-19 likely emerged — now plaguing his career.

NG’s copy reads like a campaign ad, implicitly endorsing Fauci’s directives (even his fluctuating mask mandates, which Candace Owens perfectly likened to the kindergarten game “Simon Says”), as if his every thought and word are beyond reproach. Spielberg’s Lincoln was hardly less worshipful.

At this moment of enormous social, medical, and ethical disagreement, NG’s Fauci presents one-way thinking. NG’s pomposity climaxes in the press release’s final proviso: “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’s release.”

The term “interest” is used ineptly, anticipating allegations of payment. But, really, it dodges more important issues of vanity and corruption. Propagandists who work at the behest of media corporations and institutions willingly bow to authority, and NG idolizes Fauci as the face and voice of that authority. Instead of investigating Fauci’s despotic sense of moral superiority to enlighten the general public, NG’s narrowcast promotional doc chooses persuasion over education.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.

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