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Arts & Life

A Tragic Topic Handled Deftly In 'Emperor Of All Maladies'

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Children's Hospital of Pennsylvania
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Emily Whitehead with Dr. Grupp.

Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies is an astonishing achievement. It takes a complicated and frightening subject, gives it history and context, explains in clear language some difficult science, deals with the human complexities of scientific research – and doesn’t leave you banging your head on the wall or wanting to hide in a cave.

At times, The Emperor of All Maladies is hard to watch and breaks your heart.

Scenes in the first two-hour section show children with leukemia, bald and nearly inert in their hospital beds, stricken parents trying to fathom what’s happening. Then, slowly the film emerges from its darkest moments. It never gets happy and it never dishes out phony optimism, but it stays fascinating as it shifts between accounts of research, scientific illustrations and utterly gripping encounters with human beings in the throes of illness.

The film is based on the remarkable book, The Emperor of All Maladies, by Siddhartha Mukherjee, which came out in 2010. The director is Barak Goodman, and another major participant is Ken Burns, listed in the credits as executive producer, senior creative consultant, and one of four writers.

You might not think that Mukerjee’s dense treatise on cancer could be translated into a film, but Goodman and Burns have done it. The world is clogged with documentary movies that really should be 10-page articles in a magazine. The Emperor of All Maladies comes alive as film. It’s not illustration to a book.

There is plenty of talk. The narrator describes the history of cancer treatment for six hours, and the film adds comment from many of the great researchers of the past 50 years, all connected by the unifying, articulate brilliance of Siddhartha Mukerjee.

The documentary also brings in old and new photography and film to show what can’t be said easily. Footage of patients, doctors, nurses, lab workers and politicians from the past embodies how the world was and how things have changed. The posture of doctors standing by patients implies how they thought of each other. A group portrait of doctors in the '50s – all white men in white lab coats – indicates their separation from their patients. This is critical because evolution in medical practice is closing that distance to focus attention on the individual patient as well as the disease.

The visual images bring up questions that are more articulate as sights than speech. Scenes of treatment can be brutal. When a chemo-therapy using four chemicals instead of one nicknamed VAMP came into practice, the pictures of suffering children force the question of how much harm and pain can be justified. The doctor/patient relationship is questioned silently but visually all through the film – shots often show a patient, maybe with a parent or a spouse nearby, facing a formidable bevy of official-looking doctors often bearing tough news.

At the same time, the movie never lets you forget that over the decades the doctors are people of courage, decency and devotion. There are no glib attacks or judgments in the film. It focuses on mainstream medicine and gives little attention to alternative practices. The only villains are those who hide information – like the cigarette companies – and the disease itself.

As time has passed, the doctors seem to grow friendlier and more open with information. More women appear as doctors, researchers and voices in the film, along with people of color. So the sociology changes over time, and the movie observes the shifting politics. Researchers can get set in their ways; the medical establishment can grow rigid and censoring, but as the film sees it, there is continual progress.

Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies is more than a story about cancer. It’s about human life on the plane; it’s about the history contained in the account of this disease and it’s even about the history contained in every cell in every living organism.

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