'Breakthrough': Film Review | SXSW 2019

Malinda Allison
A lucid but niche science-themed documentary.

Bill Haney’s documentary presents James Allison, a harmonica-playing scientist, and his Nobel-winning cancer discovery.

Think of Jerry Garcia in a lab coat and you’ll have an image of James Allison, the man at the center of the accurately named Breakthrough. A rumpled, gray-haired wonder in the field of medical research rather than music (although he does like to play the harmonica), Allison shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2018 for his work on how immunotherapy can fight cancer. Bill Haney’s straightforward documentary does a fine, if unexciting, job of walking the line between capturing a lively character from Texas and explaining his research to a general audience. It also makes the case that imagination is the key to scientific discovery. (This film shouldn’t be confused with the faith-based drama called Breakthrough, starring Chrissy Metz and Topher Grace, which Fox is scheduled to release in April.)

The doc’s structure is roughly chronological. Allison, now 70, tells his own story on camera much of the time, supplemented by family photos. Others close to him, including his wife, friendly ex-wife and colleagues, chime in on his strong-willed but playful personality and relentless lab work. He grew up in small-town Alice, Texas, in the 1950s and '60s, and went to an elementary school that forbade the teaching of evolution. Curiosity and personal tragedy drove him. His mother died of lymphoma when he was a boy, an event he still gets mist-eyed talking about, and that he says spurred his lifelong quest to find a cure for cancer.

Allison's work took him to labs from Texas to California and New York and back again. Along the way, he kept playing the harmonica with local bands, and on one boozy night in California in 1975 took Willie Nelson to jam at a local club, unfortunately before camera phones existed to capture it. The soundtrack to Breakthrough is by Mickey Raphael, the longtime harmonica player in Nelson’s band, and Mark Orton, who composed the music for Nebraska. It adds a country twang throughout, even as the film moves on from Allison’s personal story to his science.

Woody Harrelson’s voiceover drops in from time to time, usually to explain the stages of Allison’s research, often with animated images of cells onscreen. You need a voice as likable and engaging as Harrelson’s to prevent those scenes from becoming dry, but Breakthrough works by making them clear and simple. Allison began working on T-cells, part of the immune system. His great discovery was to understand that a molecule on the surface of T-cells, called CTLA-4, was failing to recognize cancer as the enemy. When he realized that CTLA-4 could be instructed to make the immune system attack cancer cells, he began a 15-year-long quest to get a major company to develop a drug based on his research. His brother recalls that, as a child, Allison was sometimes called 'Diamond-head,' because “his head was the hardest substance known to man,” and his perseverance bears that out (even though 15 years is pretty fast as those things go).

Haney is an entrepreneur and founder of biotech companies as well as the director of the 2007 documentary The Price of Sugar, which exposed abusive conditions among sugar plantation works in the Dominican Republic. His major misstep in Breakthrough is the teasing way he handles an astonishing part of the story. Sharon Belvin was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma in her early 20s, more than 20 years ago. Her memories of her experience are scattered throughout the doc in small pieces, until finally she receives a then-experimental drug based on Allison’s research. Her tumors vanished and have been gone for more than 17 years. Parceling out her interview in snippets actually makes it less dramatic, artificially goosing the story, as if Haney didn’t trust his ability to make the scientific subject interesting enough otherwise.

The subject is what it is, and Breakthrough is more likely to play to an audience already interested in cancer research. Allison is plenty colorful for a scientist, but he’s no Willie Nelson onscreen. There is a joyous clip of him playing with Nelson’s band recently at the Austin City Limits Festival, though. And the blurry photograph of Allison’s first meeting with Belvin, after her successful treatment, captures an undeniably glorious moment that offers hope for the future.

Allison’s research hasn’t led to a cure for all cancers, but it has proven extraordinarily effective in some, including Jimmy Carter’s. Breakthrough demonstrates that the treatment is not a miracle, but the result of some wild but meticulous thinking by a true medical hero.

Production company: Uncommon Productions
Cast: James Allison, Woody Harrelson (Narrator)
Director-screenwriter: Bill Haney
Producers: Bill Haney, Jennifer Pearce
Directors of photography: Graham Talbot, Nelson Talbot
Editor: Peter Rhodes
Music: Mark Orton, Mickey Raphael
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Spotlight)
Sales: Submarine Entertainment

90 minutes