National Geographic opened “Fauci” in theaters on Friday, with a debut on Disney+ planned in October. A once wider theatrical release was previously in the cards, but the surge in cases driven by the delta variant forced the filmmakers and studio to reconsider. Taking cues from its subject, “Fauci” is playing only in theaters where proof of vaccination and masks are required for entry.
“When we are doing a film about one of the leading public health officials in the world, we cannot but live up to the standards of that person and group safety,” says Tobias.
That “Fauci” happened at all over the course of the last 18 months is a feat of foresight by the veteran filmmakers. Both had previously made films related to health crises and had a relationship with Fauci. Tobias made the 2017 documentary “Unseen Enemy,” about the viruses and bacteria that could cause a global pandemic. Hoffman, who has documented issues around body weight ("The Weight of the Nation") and sleep ("Sleepless in America"), embedded for a year with the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center for the three-part Discovery documentary, “First in Human.”
In February 2020, before much of the U.S. had understood the threat of COVID-19, the two filmmakers had already embarked on the film with Fauci's participation. (Tobias had initially sought a film about him as early as December 2018.) The project unfolded in relative secrecy.
“We tried to be quiet,” says Tobias. “It was also something he said from the very beginning around the more intense period in March (2020). He said: ‘I do not want to draw attention to myself. What I care about is the health of Americans and the rest of the world.’”
Hoffman and Tobias ultimately filmed with the 80-year-old Fauci and his family for about a year, though — because of COVID concerns — they didn't begin interviewing him until the fall of last year. They ultimately conducted six sit-down interviews with Fauci. The filmmakers' initial plans to profile a pivotal, lesser-known figure had long before changed.
“By then, of course, it was an incredible story and everyone knew Tony’s name," says Tobias, whose film lingers on the array of trinkets — bobbleheads, candles, T-shirts — adorned with Fauci's face, along with an unlikely campaign to make him People magazine's “Sexiest Man Alive.”
What didn't alter was their aim to contextualize the Brooklyn-born Fauci's decades of public service and to specifically focus on how the AIDS crisis formed him as a public health official. The film details both Fauci's empathetic response to HIV victims and his eventual acceptance of anger and frustration from AIDS activists over the slow pace of research.
“We’ve been saying all along: We made a film about a man whose character was forged in HIV and then tested in COVID,” says Hoffman.
“Fauci” includes interviews with some of those who have worked with the doctor through different health crises, including former national security advisor Susan Rice, Bill Gates, Bono and President George W. Bush. Critics of Fauci may only see the documentary as fueling Fauci's already high profile during a pandemic that's been characterized by partisan rancor. But few in “Fauci” have anything but admiration for his dedication to science and dogged work ethic.
"Tony Fauci doesn’t come into the Oval Office to say: I’m going to make you look good politically. He’s not a politician," Bush says in the film. “Tony Fauci says: I think we can solve this problem. Here are the facts and here is my recommendation for a way forward.”
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP
This image released by National Geographic shows Dr. Anthony Fauci at the NIH in Bethesda, Md., during the filming of the documentary "Fauci." John Hoffman and Janet Tobias's portrait of the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases will screen only in theaters mandating vaccination and masking. (Visko HatfNational Geographic via AP)
FILE - Dr. Anthony Fauci testifies before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, on Capitol Hill in Washington, on July 20, 2021. John Hoffman and Janet Tobias's "Fauci," a portrait of the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, will screen only in theaters mandating vaccination and masking. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, Pool)
Credit: J. Scott Applewhite
Credit: J. Scott Applewhite