There are no remarkable innovations in this documentary on a much-missed literary and scientific original. Ric Burns films Oliver Sacks, the neurologist who gained wider fame with books such as Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, talking fluently and hilariously some months before his death in 2015. Those contributions pepper a walk through Sacks's life with talking heads such as Paul Theroux, Jonathan Miller and Temple Grandin.
But this remains one of the year’s most gripping documentaries. The story is extraordinary. The archive footage is enlightening. And Sacks is a singular conversationalist – sober and analytical one moment, profane and hilarious the next.
Where do you go when your mother calls you an abomination? You go to San Francisco
That apparent division between wild man and attentive observer runs all the way through this gripping yarn. Sacks was born to a Jewish family in London – both parents were doctors – six years before the second World War. He maintained an awkward relationship with his mother. His father twigged that the young Oliver was gay and, defying his son’s urgings, broke the news to mum. “You are an abomination,” she said. “I wish you had never been born.”
In 1960 he left for the US west coast. “Where do you go when your mother calls you an abomination,” Theroux muses. “You go to San Francisco.” Sacks rode motorbikes and lifted weights. He read books and talked to patients.
The film rightly spends much time examining his work with those survivors of the 1920s sleeping sickness epidemic who, after treatment with a new drug, emerged from a shut-in state for the first time in decades. Sacks wrote about the case in Awakenings, but, though a cult following developed, real fame had to wait for The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, a book of case studies, in 1985 and Penny Marshall’s film of the earlier book in 1990.
There are four or five episodes here that could generate a documentary in their own right. Sacks would be pleased to hear that a number of people he wrote about have their stories told again. His gift was, after all, to listen, to empathise and to record.
Such is the force of Sacks’s personality, however, that he and his contradictions cannot help but dominate the action. It seems scarcely possible that the buff young man on the motorbike – leathered up like Brando – and the witty, bearded elder are the same person. But both existed together throughout his fascinating life.
A hugely entertaining record of a person no novelist could have invented.
On digital platforms and at the IFI, Dublin from October 4th