Whatever your preconceived notions of the anti-vaccination movement are, “The Pathological Optimist” will make you question them entirely. Directed and produced by Miranda Bailey, the documentary centers around Andrew Wakefield, a British doctor and researcher who is credited with starting the movement.
Wakefield is known for publishing a 1998 paper, now proven fraudulent, stating that there was a link between autism and bowel disease and the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine. Following the publication of this paper, Wakefield became embroiled in defamation suits and criticism from the medical community, resulting in the loss of his medical license in the United Kingdom.
“The Pathological Optimist” follows Wakefield, his wife and their four children as they rehash their legal troubles and navigate their daily lives in their new home in Austin, Texas.
The magic in this documentary lies in its lighting, music and camerawork, which successfully highlight the Wakefield family’s emotions and make them more relatable to viewers.
Through consistent close-up shots and harsh lighting, viewers are able to clearly see the faces of the subjects: the dark circles under Wakefield’s wife’s eyes as she discusses her family’s financial troubles; the nervous shifting of their son’s eyes as Wakefield discusses their family’s situation with him; and even Wakefield’s eyes watering slightly as he recounts losing legal battles.
The interviews often take place inside the Wakefields’ home, and as Wakefield talks of the claims made against him, the camera switches occasionally to close-up shots of the family photos placed behind him, reminding viewers of his humanity. This lighting and attention to detail, combined with the powerful musical score, guide the viewer into feeling the same emotions the Wakefield family felt. Given the film’s highly complex discussion of the anti-vaccination movement, this emotional arc was certainly needed.
“The Pathological Optimist” also succeeds in being incredibly thought-provoking. Interviews and scenes with Wakefield’s family spliced with clips of Anderson Cooper and other news anchors berating his logic and intentions provide viewers with both sides of the spectrum.
This documentary hints at the importance and necessity of hearing both sides of the story and the ways in which the media can warp one’s actions and words. Although viewers may still firmly hold their beliefs regarding vaccination, they may be compelled to do more research for themselves and better understand the other side’s beliefs.
The filmmakers do not insert much additional information beyond news clips in support of or against Wakefield. Rather, they let him and his family members talk and let their words guide the audience in forming its opinions on the situation.
That being said, this tendency to show only Wakefield’s side of the story was one of the film’s weaknesses. The film spends far too much time attempting to make viewers sympathize with Wakefield, and in the process, neglects to include sufficient objective information about his role in the anti-vaccination movement. For example, rather than including information about the arguments against Wakefield, the filmmakers allow Wakefield to counter every claim against him, giving him a level of authority that may be unwarranted.
Despite this drawback, the documentary was quite well executed. It succeeds in its purpose of making audiences question and think critically, and will linger in viewers’ minds as they attempt to reconcile their beliefs with what they have just watched.
“The Pathological Optimist” may not change your mind about the anti-vaccination movement, but that is not the film’s purpose. Rather, it focuses on exposing audiences to the other side of a story that often goes untold.