By Elias Savada.
Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson, please step aside…at least for 91 minutes…and allow the world to shine a light on a man unknown to most of us, but who wholeheartedly deserves our attention and admiration. He’s not your big name science guy and probably doesn’t contemplate the vast interstellar universe, but Jim Allison has been toiling away for decades to find medicine’s magic bullet in the fight against one of the world’s big killers.
He’s now a rumbled 70+-year-old, long-haired Texan who loves Willie Nelson and playing the blues harmonica. He talks a lot about T-cells, a lymphocyte that plays a central role in cancer research, and occasionally tosses about a lot of highfaluting phrases. Please indulge his passion, even if you don’t understand it all. As a long time maverick in the quest to find the big cure, his uncanny skills as an immunologist have led to trailblazing accomplishments in medical research. Oh, he also won (shared with Tasuku Honjo) the 2018 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology.
Watching this man in the carefully etched Jim Allison: Breakthrough from award-winning documentarian Bill Haney is one of this season’s little pleasures. It’s not a flashy piece – other than showcasing flashes of genius and serendipity – and the buildup of James Patrick Allison, PhD, starts off with his own low-key thoughts about his sleepy Lone Star home town of Alice. There, he played with a Gilbert chemistry set in the garage as a child (I preferred Erector sets and Lincoln Logs). His mom died of lymphoma when Jim was 11, and his dad, the town pediatrician, was so broken by her passing that the boy ended up in foster care. From those somber memories of his past, his iconoclastic future was born.
Haney doesn’t keep his subject’s earnest quest a secret, as he positions “Every year cancer kills more than 9 million people,” against a black screen just before cutting to the scientist receiving that most esteemed award from the King of Norway. The film is neither grandiose tall tale nor a prime time procedural told with a harried heartbeat that rushes to solve a medical riddle. Instead, here’s a subtle biography about a gentle beast of a very smart man who stands his ground against ignorant norms, aching to fight against irresponsible fools and unsettling dis-enlightenment, whether it’s a teacher who refuses to teach the theory of evolution, some local yokels pushing creationism, or big pharma.
The spigot from which Allison’s infectious enthusiasm flows has no turn off switch, as attested to by the family, friends, science reporters, and colleagues who mild-mannerly roast him through much of the film. Jim’s quest for the eponymous breakthrough began in the 1960s while he was attending the University of Texas, Austin (born in 1948, he graduated high school at 16), when the discovery of T-cells set him on a journey that has lasted over half a century.
Director Haney provides a engaging chronicle of this long, strange trip, while also adding an additional time line for Sharon Belvin, whose metastatic melanoma diagnosis at 22 had pushed her to throes of despair when all expected treatments proved ineffective. Every 10 or 15 minutes, the film touches on her life – and the wonder of raising her family – before the ultimate and most obvious connection is slowly revealed. For the most part, you’ll travel on Allison’s road trip – his then wife Malinda offers many lovely anecdotes about their travels, trials, and tribulations – which takes him back and forth between Texas and California before landing in New York City at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. That’s where the big miracles began to happen with Ipilimumab, a drug developed by Allison while at the University of California, Berkeley, to treat patients with advanced cases of melanoma.
Allison is a man most unconventional and fascinating, and I’d love to share a beer with him. “If not for the creative scientists, we would make little progress,” Tyler Jacks of MIT’s Koch Institute for Cancer Research says of him, among others in the field.
The score, often leaning towards Allison’s love of country western music, sometimes slips into gunslinger mode, like a spaghetti western, as if Allison was gunning for a shootout against the unfortunate fools who cross his path.
The film sporadically drifts into some innocuous recreated scenes, a few amusing graphics, a smidgeon of stock and tv footage, home movies, and old photos, with an occasional commentary delivered by fellow Texan Woody Harrelson. It gathers a bunch of pleasant talking heads, as the story moves forward in a fairly chronological order. Jim Allison: Breakthrough is a most enjoyable, and remarkable, ramble.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2019 by Centipede Press).