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Hollywood producer Laura Ziskin (who died of breast cancer in 2011) and PBS house documentarian Ken Burns (credited here as executive producer and co-writer) spearheaded this informative, occasionally eloquent three-part series about the history of one of the more complex and devastating diseases known to man. Despite the numerous strides made in modern medicine, cancer seems to get more and more intricate the longer one looks at it. Indeed, the only simple thing about this particular disease is its endgame; even with remission, death is frequently assured.
Why would anyone want to spend six hours over the course of three nights in the company of cancer and its many victims? Interviewee Siddhartha Mukherjee — who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Emperor of All Maladies, from which the series takes its title — gets at the root reason when he discusses the taboo of cancer. For many years it was the disease no one talked about, not just for fear of social stigmatization, but for the physical and psychological pain that came with a diagnosis. (One of the doc’s most cringe-inducing sections details the particulars of Dr. William Halsted’s “radical mastectomy,” a procedure devised for breast cancer sufferers in the late 19th century that left women horribly disfigured, yet was for years held up as a medical field gold standard.) Cancer can bring a human being so low; the best way to preserve one’s dignity is to stand up and be counted.
The film aims to put many individual faces to the disease — both the afflicted and those working to unearth causes and cures. Each of the three installments is filled with historical information. Episode One (“Magic Bullets”) traces the first mentions of cancer in an Egyptian papyrus through to the advancements of Dr. Sidney Farber, who revolutionized chemotherapy treatment. Episode Two (“The Blind Men and the Elephant”) begins with the so-called war on cancer declared by President Richard Nixon in 1971 (when millions of dollars were dedicated to the study and eradication of the disease), then explores the advent of targeted therapies and drugs like Gleevec and Herceptin that gave some small measure of hope to the stricken. And Episode Three (“Finding an Achilles Heel”) looks at the work done post-2000 as better technology allowed scientists to create a genetic atlas that gave them insight into the core causes of cancer and led to the creation of new immunotherapy treatments.
This is all engrossing in that typical Ken Burns style — a nicely rhythmic mix of talking heads and archival imagery, confident narration by the late Edward Herrmann (who died of brain cancer in 2014) and a nagging sense that director Barak Goodman and his crew are staying somewhat on the surface of things, making a by-nature unpalatable subject easier to digest than it should be. To this end, the most affecting (and problematic) sections of The Emperor of All Maladies are the sequences set in the present as the film follows several cancer-afflicted patients through their day-to-day struggles and treatment regimens.
It’s impossible not to be moved by the sight of 14-month-old Olivia Blair as she suffers through a leukemia that has spread to her brain and spinal column, or to be stirred by the plight of Lori Wilson, an oncologist who, in a sad irony, is diagnosed with different types of cancer in both breasts. Yet the film frequently sentimentalizes their experiences, utilizing David Cieri’s treacly score to drive home the tragedies and occasional triumphs of each situation, while also flirting with a morbid sense of suspense in the way each story is teased out over the course of a given installment. Who will survive? Who won’t? It’s an unbecoming undercurrent in an otherwise absorbing nonfiction narrative, and it leaves a bitter aftertaste.
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