January 30, 2021 – Oliver Sacks, the name sounded familiar to me as I began watching this movie, but I couldn't quite place it. Then it became clear to me why the name sounded familiar, it was from the movie “Awakenings,” starring Robin Williams, who plays Oliver Sacks in that movie.
It turns out that the movie “Awakenings” (1990) was actually very important in the real life of Oliver Sacks. It had the totally unexpected effect of legitimizing Sacks’ work in the field of neurology. Prior to that movie, Sack’s work, and his book, “Awakenings” had been largely ignored by the scientific community.
Ric Burns’ documentary, “Oliver Sacks: His Own Life,” gives us a more rounded look at the man and his work, literally covering his life from birth to death (he died of cancer in 2015). The movie shows Sacks as a man of enormous depth and complexity. He had a profound influence on the study of the human mind.
Sacks was born in England in 1933, but lived in the United States for most of his life, partly because of the difficulty of living in England as a homosexual, where his very nature was deemed illegal.
His struggle with his own sexual identity would last for decades, during which he became a drug addict, a long distance motorcyclist (sometimes riding for three days without resting) a record-breaking weight lifter, and a doctor possessed of incredible empathy for his patients. He remained celibate for decades.
His experiments using the drug levodopa on New York patients suffering from the effects of sleeping sickness, encephalitis lethargica, produced spectacular, but temporary results. He wrote the book, “Awakenings,” about these patients, and their response to the drug therapy.
Sacks single-handedly brought back the old practice of writing case histories of his patients. He was a prolific writer who seemingly was compelled to write about his work, his patients, and himself. According to the movie his writing was therapeutic for him.
After the movie “Awakenings,” the scientific community started to accept Sacks’ work. Advances in the neurosciences, particularly those related to consciousness, fascinated Sacks. According to the film, his case studies shed light on the functions of specific areas of the brain.
The film describes Sacks as a throwback to the days when polymaths like Leonardo da Vinci spanned a variety of fields of both sciences and art. Sacks’ writings seem to straddle the fields of literature and science. They are more accessible to the public than most medical texts, and quite a few have appeared in popular magazines. His writings have also been adapted into several films, plays, and an opera.
This movie is entertaining and informative. It seems like a good summary of a remarkable life, full of unexpected twists and turns. This film rates a B+.
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