Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies (2015)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Science is a profession for manic-depressives because there’s occasional highs where we make a discovery and then 90% or 95% of the time there’s frustrating difficulties and nothing happens. What drives one is one’s ongoing curiosity and the optimism that if you push hard enough and you look under enough stones, you’re going to turn up some really interesting things. —Dr. Robert A. Weinberg
All of us have been touched by cancer—whether it be through a loved one, a friend, a co-worker, or a neighbor who lives a few houses down our own. Some of us may have gone through it directly. “Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies,” based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Siddhartha Mukherjee, is a highly compelling and informative six-hour documentary that should be seen by everyone. It begins with the early history of what we now refer to as cancer—dating back to ancient Egypt—and ends with highlighting the breakthroughs that researchers and physicians have made in the quest of finding a cure, or cures, against a most ingenious disease.
One of the film’s most positive qualities, directed by Barak Goodman, is the precise and clear manner in which it presents information. This is no easy feat considering that the material jumps back and forth between past and present, the latter telling stories of patients who have been diagnosed with specific cancers, children and adults across all races, creed, and economic status. The present focuses on the human aspect of the disease while the past takes on the science, the critical discoveries, about more than a handful turning out to be accidental, that have been made to get us to where we are now.
The documentary is divided into three two-hour sections: “Magic Bullets,” “The Blind Men and the Elephant,” and “Finding the Achilles Heel.” Each commands a specific tone, mood, and subject. For instance, the first section focuses primarily on liquid tumors like leukemia while the succeeding section turns its attention to solid tumors such as breast cancer. The third is about coming to terms with mortality and immorality of the high cost that comes with cancer care. In terms of emotional heft, I felt very touched by Dr. Lori Wilson’s story, a physician diagnosed by not one but two different breast cancers, one in each breast. Her story is found in the middle section, the grim irony of her situation synergistic to that of the section’s playful and ironic title.
Animations, diagrams, and images of actual cells under a microscope are often utilized at a perfect time. Instead of using obscure scientific jargon, it shows a picture. For instance, when a Western blot is presented on screen, there are arrows or there is a finger that points to where a person should look to recognize the difference between the protein expression of cancer versus normal cells. Aside from the sheer quality and power of the material, I enjoyed it from the perspective of a student-scientist-in-training. I was reminded that just about over a year prior to seeing this film, I had no idea how to properly read a protein immunoblot. Thus, it is critical that what the film is showing or talking about can easily be consumed by the masses.
Notice I did not go into scientific details. This is on purpose because it is my aim to embody the essence of the film in this review. Needless to say, “Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies” deserves to be seen and to be discussed. It might even encourage lifestyle changes because it has been established that some cancers are caused by environmental or lifestyle factors. I would even go as far to say that I think it is powerful enough to inspire high school or college students who may be interested in the subject of cancer to pursue a career in science and/or medicine, to shed more light in this behemoth, history-making undertaking.