Review by Jeff Myhre
Is there a link between autism and the MMR vaccine? Director Miranda Bailey spent five years with Dr. Andrew Wakefield, one of 13 physicians who co-authored a paper that started the anti-vaccination movement. The Pathological Optimist is the result, and there is no better precis of the matter to date.
In making the film, Bailey clearly tried hard to be unbiased, but the truth is that Dr. Wakefield has no small personal charm, his wife Carmel is a strong and admirable woman, and the kids (who appear only briefly) garner some sympathy as innocents in the whole situation. The result is a film that tells the truth, nothing but the truth, but somehow slants the truth further in Wakefield’s favor than I think he deserves.
Consider the graphic that notes, between 1999 (after the infamous paper) and 2014 (when the filming was finished), more than 100 scientific studies failed to demonstrate a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Not a single study found such a link. Yet, this is saved for the last quarter of the film. Open the documentary with that fact, and one’s take on Dr. Wakefield would be entirely different. No rational person would entertain the idea that he is a brave crusader for truth; instead, one would consider him a charlatan or self-deluded.
That said, Bailey has more than done her homework in getting the facts to the view in easily digestible form. The average person (and especially the average non-British person) doesn’t know the finer points of the practice medicine and medical research in the UK, nor of the law of subject matter jurisdiction in the State of Texas (where Wakefield has resided for years). Yet one never feels lost in the telling of the tale.
As she tells that tale, Bailey uncovers some wonderfully human moments of a family under fire. Early on in the film as he is driving his son to school, Wakefield asks the boy if he believes the things he hears about his father in the media. Perhaps the question was staged, but the son’s answer “Only the good stuff” shines as a teenager’s truth. Later, Carmel explains to their daughter, who is going away to college, that they will have moved to a newer, smaller, affordable home when she comes back for Christmas. Both put on a brave face, but the tears are genuine and perfectly legitimate.
The British journalist Brian Deer is Wakefield’s nemesis in all of this, having won serious accolades (and a prize or two) for his work in debunking Wakefield’s research and anti-vaccination activities. He appears only through publicly available video and declined to participate in the project. This is entirely understandable, but at the same time, it weakens “The Perpetual Optimist.” The animosity Wakefield holds for him is almost palpable. At one stage, he refuses to even visit Deer’s website. “Never have, never will.” Deer’s collaboration was probably beyond hoping for, but it would have been a major plus.
With Wakefield’s own film “Vaxxed” being pulled from the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year, and with its premier in the UK done almost in secret, Bailey’s “The Perpetual Optimist” more than fills the void. And despite some clear affinity (affection?) for Wakefield and his humanity, I would say it’s also likely to be a fairer representation of Wakefield and the MMR/autism controversy.
Wakefield isn’t a monster, nor is he a hero. He is a man who made a dreadful mistake and can’t bring himself to acknowledge it. Bailey shows the result of that inability with crystal clarity.