'The Pathological Optimist': Film Review

The controversy continues.

Miranda Bailey's documentary focuses on Andrew Wakefield, the British physician who stirred controversy with his claim that the MMR vaccine causes autism.

If you have any doubt that reviewing a documentary about Andrew Wakefield, the British doctor who became the public face of the anti-vaccination movement, is a difficult proposition, scroll down. You're bound to see a jampacked comments section featuring incendiary remarks from readers both pro and con on the subject. So, let me stipulate up front that this reviewer is not taking a stand on the controversial issue. Please forgo the invective, folks.

Now back to The Pathological Optimist. For those not up to speed, Wakefield was one of 13 co-authors of a 1998 study in a British medical journal that claimed a link between the MMR vaccine, designed to prevent measles, mumps and rubella, and autism. Many concerned parents then refused to let their children have the vaccine, resulting in an outbreak of measles. The study was subsequently discredited by the medical establishment, and in 2004 Brian Deer, a journalist for the Sunday Times, wrote an article spotlighting Wakefield's undisclosed conflicts of interest.

In the ensuing firestorm, the study was discredited by the medical establishment, most of its co-authors withdrew their support and Wakefield’s medical license was revoked. He subsequently moved to Austin, Texas, where he continued his anti-MMR crusade. In 2016 he directed and released a documentary, Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe, which was scheduled to be shown at the Tribeca Film Festival. So many protests were registered that the festival withdrew the film and it was released in theaters shortly afterward.

For this documentary, filmmaker Miranda Bailey followed Wakefield and his family over the course of five years, delivering a personal profile that shies away from taking a stand on his controversial theories. The film's drama principally stems from Wakefield having filed a defamation lawsuit against Deer and The Lancet, the medical journal that ultimately retracted his study.

To say that Wakefield doesn't come across well is an understatement. Presenting himself as a truth-telling martyr, he says that he's worried about the effect his notoriety is having on his wife and children. Then he allows them to take part in the documentary, with his clearly devoted wife passionately defending him. At one point, he's shown driving his son to school and asking him what he thinks is going to happen with the court case. "I think we're going to win because what you're doing is right," the young boy tells the beaming Wakefield. Later on, even his elderly mother is dragged into the proceedings.

Wakefield also defends his appalling stunt of soliciting blood samples from the children attending his son's 10th birthday, paying them five pounds each in return. He says that the only thing he did wrong was not getting ethical approval and is seen joking about it in a video of one of his lectures. His now-grown son doesn't see what all the fuss was about, saying, "It was a great day," and his wife points out, "It was done very discreetly."

The film includes footage of Wakefield working the crowds at various fundraisers, including comments from several parents who strongly believe in what he has to say. One mother of an autistic child claims Deer is being paid by pharmaceutical companies to discredit Wakefield.

By the time Wakefield compares himself to Nelson Mandela, even those inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt are likely to become annoyed. We learn that he vents his anger and frustration by chopping down trees, and by the film's end he's practically cleared an entire forest.

Ultimately, of course, Wakefield himself is beside the point. The controversy over vaccinations will rage on and this cinematic portrait will merely be a footnote. But it proves a compelling one, however you may feel about the burning issue.

Production: Cold Iron Pictures
Distributor: Gravitas Ventures
Director: Miranda Bailey
Producers: Miranda Bailey, Marc Lesser, Amanda Marshall
Executive producer: Jennifer Fox
Directors of photography: Jeffrey Buras, Marc Lesser
Editor: Andrea Maxwell
Composer: Craig Richey

93 min.