Film Review: The Pathological Optimist

An anger-arousing documentary elucidating the controversies spawned by Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s suggestion of a link between the MMR vaccine and autism.
Specialty Releases

An exacting documentary, The Pathological Optimist assumes no clear point of view on its provocative subject, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, whose 1998 research linking the MMR vaccine to autism birthed an ardent anti-vaccines movement. Regardless of where you stand on the vaccination issue, it’s possible to relish Miranda Bailey’s highly informative, anger-arousing film, and to feel it’s promoting your own views. (Disclosure: I stand on the side of the mainstream medical community in their support of vaccines.)

Those who support Wakefield’s opposition to the MMR vaccine, to the medical establishment, and to the press (whom he feels “assaulted” him when his research was deemed fraudulent and then retracted by the journal that originally published it) will delight in seeing Wakefield get the chance to tell his side of the story. He speaks directly to the camera, calmly presenting reasonable arguments refuting each of the many accusations made against his integrity as a scientist, such as his financial interest in a competing vaccine and his questionable methods of interpreting and collecting data. (In need of comparative samples, he once drew blood from all of the boys at his ten-year-old son’s birthday party, gave them five pounds apiece, and later joked about them wanting ten pounds next time.) Wakefield’s supporters may also enjoy the abundance of footage showing him as a sympathetic “family man,” in the kitchen cooking dinner or watching his son’s football practice. Demonstrating what a heroic figure Wakefield is to a fervent community of parents of children with autism, the film shows fans lined up to greet him at his book-signing events, and reveals how it was from the “autism community” that he raised the money to originally bring a defamation suit against his accusers. Equally heartening may be the spotlight Bailey focuses on the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival’s censorship of the premiere of Wakefield’s documentary, Vaxxed. Though pulled from the lineup by Festival director Robert De Niro—responding to pressures from the medical community—Wakefield’s film went on to enjoy a successful theatrical release.

Yet those watching Bailey’s film through the opposing lens will see a dangerous co-dependency between a dubious man and his fawning believers. When ousted from his job in the U.K., Wakefield moved to Texas, where he opened an autism-treatment center. There he began to develop his following, rooted in a vulnerable population of parents desperate to hear their kids will be okay. The documentary suggests that they support Wakefield’s legal battles against his accusers because it gives them hope—hope that they, too, can win the battles they fight daily on behalf of their special-needs children. We see how he, in turn, needs them, both their worshipful attention and their money. Near the end of the film, facing severe financial debt when the autism community is failing to come through with enough funding for his ongoing legal expenses, Wakefield explains that he must now identify a new group of people to reach out to for money. Instantly, the scene shifts to the stage of a fundraising event where an ebullient host is saying, “I’m a chiropractor.” At the end of the night, Wakefield leaves with $50,000. A pompous, unlikeable character, prone to making excuses over taking action, Wakefield is bolstered throughout by his catty wife, Carmel. A harsh, unpleasant enabler, she defends her husband with an aggressive energy he never seems to muster, his flat personality suggesting mood-stabilizing medication of some sort.

Filmed over the course of five years, Bailey’s ambitious documentary delivers its information in small, teasing doses, gradually deepening our understanding of its complex content while toying with our opinions. We change our minds, back and forth, about who’s right and wrong, as we’re forced to wrestle with notions of misinterpretation, the film’s main theme. Both his accusers and supporters misinterpreted Wakefield’s work. His sparkplug study simply asked for more research into an MMR-autism link, without definitively stating the existence of such; and his objection is to the MMR—a combined vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella—not to the single measles vaccine which he very much supports. While thought-provoking from start to finish, Bailey’s film launches with a shot of typed text that says it all: “It’s easier to fool people than to convince them they have been fooled.” A footnote tells us that’s a quote from Mark Twain, “according to some people on the Internet.”

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