Film Review: Oliver Sacks: His Own Life is a rather ordinary doco about an extraordinary man

Oliver Sacks was an incredible man. The neurologist, writer and naturalist forced us all to rethink our understanding of the brain with his absorbing medical case studies and books. He showed a real empathy towards his patients at a time when the establishment were sceptical about such treatment. Now he is the focus of Oliver Sacks: His Own Life, a documentary that while solid, is sometimes not fit to hold a candle to its extraordinary subject.

Ric Burns directs this film, capturing Sacks at a prescient time. Sacks had just finished writing his memoir and had received a terminal cancer diagnosis. The filmmaker would pack in hours’ worth of interviews with Sacks at the doctor’s apartment. This means that the proceedings are often a first-hand account not dissimilar to Tuesdays with Morrie.

The film also features archive footage including photos of a young Sacks who left London to live in the US. He would become obsessed with motorcycles and bodybuilding. He also had some struggles, including an addiction to amphetamines and issues with his sexuality. His mother, an Orthodox Jew, called Sacks an abomination.

There are also interviews with writers Johnathan Miller and Paul Theroux, which feature alongside Sacks’ own storytelling. Temple Grandin describes how she felt understood by Sacks after he wrote about her and her autism diagnosis. Some of the sweetest scenes are when Sacks’ long-term partner Billy Hayes is interviewed. It is uplifting that the pair found each other and fell in love, even if this was quite late in life.

Sacks would write the book Awakenings which was made into a film starring Robin Williams about his experimental work prescribing L-DOPA to patients who had been in vegetative states for decades. He is also well known for writing The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Sacks showed lots of humanity for his patients because he had seen how his brother with schizophrenia had been treated by the medical profession when they were both young.

That said, Sacks is a self-effacing subject, and the documentary is certainly no hagiography. Audiences learn about Sacks’ failures, as well as his successes.

Oliver Sacks: His Own Life is an interesting documentary but that was always going to be the case given the subject matter. Sacks achieved a lot in his amazing career and this film does cover aspects of that, though sometimes feels like it drags on beyond its almost two hour runtime. A great man who wrote some ground-breaking books, this documentary is a good primer to his life.


Oliver Sacks: His Own Life opens in cinemas on December 3.

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