Jim Allison: Breakthrough (Haney, 2019) — Full Frame 2019

Whenever I attend a film festival, particularly the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, I try to schedule at least one film near the beginning or the end with the potential for uplift. Raising one’s social consciousness is important, but if I get nothing but a steady diet of climate change, political postmortems, oppressed people groups, and war, I risk allowing the films to have a numbing rather than a galvanizing effect.

I am not sure if it is me or the film, but I left less energized than I wanted to be, thinking that Breakthrough is about as depressing as a story can be when the bottom line is that thousands of people are cancer-free because of Jim Allison’s research.

Part of what makes Allison an admirable person is his perseverance. We are told over and over again that the drug industry is more interested in profitable drugs than in medical breakthroughs. We are told that the scientific community is prone to group-think and hampered by the short plug funders give to research that doesn’t show immediate promise and imminent results.

As a result, Allison, who was a key figure in determining how T-cells fight diseases and why they don’t fight cancer, is presented as more or less a maverick. We love mavericks–at least I do–but the stories of how they buck the system inevitably highlight how messed up the system is in the first place.

From within that flawed system, Allison is able to push his new treatment through a lengthy trial process and eventually get it approved by the FDA. Lives are saved, and the film rightly ends with testimonials from those who would not be alive but for Allison’s medical acumen and personal perseverance.

And yet Breakthrough is hardly a triumphal film. We still have a long way to go in fighting cancer, one researcher cautions. Also, the same dogged determination that helped Allison push pass resistance from the business and scientific community ended up costing him his first marriage. He and his wife amicably divorced, and she appears in the film to praise him and his work, but it is still sad that he apparently had to make personal sacrifices of his own in order to serve the greater good.

The world is a better place for Jim Allison’s contributions to it, and I don’t begrudge the film lionizing him for those contributions. My one reservation about his story is that I fear in our rush to rightly praise the man for his efforts, we neglect to ask some hard, sober questions about why we have set up various systems (business, medical, educational) that appear to make it harder rather than easier for important truths to discovered and desemenated.

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