In 2105, a month after receiving his fatal diagnosis for cancer, prolific doctor and author Oliver Sacks (Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat) sat down over the course of 5 days to record a lifetime of memories, ruminations, and discoveries surrounded by friends and colleagues. These sessions were video recorded, and those recordings mixed with numerous follow-up interviews and archival footage make up the presentation of Ric Burns’ (brother of noted documentarian Ken) Oliver Sacks: His Own Life.
Sacks painstakingly recounts stories from the entirety of his life – from a childhood growing up and the youngest child to overachieving parents both in the medical field and early expectations he follows the same path, to a painful coming out as gay man that temporarily estranged him from his family and set upon him a deeply nomadic lifestyle. Sacks finally finds his calling dealing with patients directly, and his empathetic approach allows him to revolutionize approaches in how to deal with comatose patients. His story made famous in the Robin Williams vehicle of the same name of his book – Awakenings.
Burns’ approach to this documentary brings an exhaustingly clinical feel to the proceedings. It’s a film full of fascinating facts surrounding an intriguing personality in Sacks. But watching the result feels like the equivalent to reading a medical textbook. It’s extremely dry and overly comprehensive, which unfortunately leaves the film likely to thoroughly engage only the most fervent of Sacks’ admirers, leaving most more apt to shuffle through to the most entertaining parts like skimming through said textbook while cramming for a big test.
There’s a part of the film just past the 60-minute mark where we see the aftermath of his Awakenings trials and book publication that feels like it would be a natural place to start to wrap up the story – yet the film continues for another 45 minutes or so through Sacks’ later years and finally finding a lasting love. Sadly, nothing in those last 45 minutes is as engaging as the first 65 minutes of the film, ultimately adding further chapters to the film that may have been greatly helped with some further editing. Though Sacks himself remains gregarious throughout.