No one could have predicted the global pandemic of COVID-19 when production began on Jim Allison: Breakthrough, but its foundational message is so resonant that there might not be a more perfect time for it to reach audiences. Chronicling the life and scientific research of Nobel laureate and trailblazing immunologist James Allison, whose work with T cells revolutionized treatment for immunodeficiencies and some types of cancer, the film is the opposite of the escapist binging that occupies many people’s queues in this moment.
There is no fantasy or fatalism in Allison’s tale. Instead, director Bill Haney navigates the harsh realities of devastation wrought by cancer (including one patient whose life was saved directly by Allison’s research) and the small-thinking minds that stand in scientists’ way, while maintaining a fundamental optimism that an answer can be found.
“When I was a little boy and I was late for dinner,” says Haney. “My mother would say to me, ‘What were you, out curing cancer? Get in here and sit down,’ because that was the impossible dream. Nobody would ever be out curing cancer. But Jim Allison, for 20 percent of the patients, and 20 percent of the tumors, did. And he did it by personal charisma, scientific insight, persistence, resilience, humor, warmth, teamwork. All the things that probably you wish you could see working in solving COVID right now…Jim embodies all that.”
Born in Alice, Texas, Allison’s extraordinary life was forged by early struggles. Losing his mother at a young age to lymphoma, and later losing a brother to melanoma, Allison deeply understood the human impact of his work. A bright student, he butted heads with the head of his school’s science department who blocked all discussion of evolution in the classroom, and gained confidence to confront those who stand in the way of progress. Whether he is determined or stubborn will be up to the viewer to decide, but his work ethic is an inspiring blend of long-term dedication and impatience with problems he knows can be resolved.
“There’s something magical about Jim,” says Haney. “None of us do everything the right way, but he’s trying to do the right things for the right reasons.”
There is a careful balance filmmakers must strike when chronicling scientific breakthroughs and the trailblazers who made them happen. If they focus too much on the technical details, they run the risk of losing the audience. If they go too broad with metaphors and framing devices, the importance of hard work and scientific rigor is glossed over. On top of that, who knows how the world will look when the film finally premieres? Will new research negate the findings presented in the film?
Breakthrough sets the standard for how films about scientists can do justice to their subject’s work, their personality, and those around them. Allison is a lifelong blues harmonica player who has shared the stage with Willie Nelson. A detail like this might have been treated as a comical sidenote or postscript in other documentaries, but his zeal for life and his need to create are intrinsically linked.
Regarding the role of Allison’s creativity in his scientific work, Haney believes that “it’s central, absolutely central. And by the way, part of creativity is the willingness to follow the music wherever she takes you,” he says. “And if he had to ignore the convention and ignore the existing papers and change the way the FDA thought [about] it and persuade them, then that’s what he was going to do.”
“The next adult you speak to, ask them to name for you five or 10 creative Americans,” Haney says. “And they will name, I promise, musicians and poets and playwrights and novelists and actors and directors. How many will name a scientist? I think almost no one, and yet they are the people who invent the devices that become our daily lives, the folks who are reimagining life right now. …If you’re a 12-year-old girl and want to have a creative, soulful life, even if you just say creative, how many of those are going to think that that’s an engineer or a biologist? I’m afraid that it’s shockingly small. To their loss and ours.”
Though the film was completed before the novel coronavirus began to spread, it is not a far jump from watching Allison at work to being interested in the work of scientists on the front lines of the search for a COVID-19 vaccine. We have to follow facts, not leaders with conflicting interests. We have to challenge conventional wisdom about what problems are insurmountable, not succumb to them. A great film about a compelling man, Breakthrough may be the antidote to hopelessness in our current pandemic.
The documentary Jim Allison: Breakthrough premieres April 27 on PBS’ “Independent Lens.”