NEW YORK — There's a moment in the new documentary about Dr. Anthony Fauci when a protester holds up a handmade sign reading, "Dr. Fauci, You Are Killing Us."
It says something about Fauci that it's not initially clear when that sign was waved in anger — in the 1980s as AIDS made its deadly rise or in the 2020s with covid-19 vaccine opponents.
"American Masters: Dr. Tony Fauci," now streaming on PBS, offers a portrait of an unlikely lightning rod: a government infectious disease scientist who advised seven presidents. Fauci hopes it can inspire more public servants like him.
"I just felt that there needed to be a story of people understanding what public health officials go through, but also I hope as a source of inspiration for young people who are either in science or interested in going into science," he said.
Fauci allowed a film crew to follow him for 23 months starting in January 2021. The documentary covers his career and its crises, especially the way covid-19 was handled by the Trump administration.
"When you talk about all of the different things comingtogether for a disaster, that's what happened: a divided country, a president who amplified the division and then a public health crisis — you couldn't ask for a worse combination of things," he said.
Director Mark Mannucci offers an intimate look at his subject, with images of Fauci running from meeting to meeting and wolfing down Wheat Thins between Zooms. His wife attests to the stress by pointing out their security detail due to threats.
"The story illuminates — and he'd be the first to say it — some very dark stuff about this country and how a person who has devoted his life to helping individuals got so twisted in this current climate," Mannucci said.
Michael Kantor, executive producer for the American Masters series, says Fauci is a figure who has been central to American life for decades and deserves an examination, even if some virulently oppose him.
"Dr. Fauci is a very controversial figure, and there are going to be people who are going to voice — just as in the film — great displeasure about what he's done and about his approach to things. But isn't that the whole point of public media? It is intended to make that conversation happen in the best possible way."
Covid-19 may have introduced Fauci to millions of Americans, but his long career at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases was marked by numerous previous health scares, among them HIV, SARS, MERS, Ebola and even the nation's 2001 anthrax attacks.
The film shows that Fauci learned a lesson in humility with AIDS, as the disease stubbornly persisted and activists argued not enough was being done from the government. "I went from a world of success and gratification to a world of frustration and failure," he says in the film.
Mannucci's camera flashes-forward to today, with Fauci cordially meeting up with the former AIDS activists who once decried him. They have long since reconciled; they were all on the same side, after all — science.
"I put aside the confrontational behavior and the attacks on me and listen to what they were saying," Fauci said. "And what they were saying was making perfect sense. It made me feel if I were in their shoes, I'd be doing exactly what they were doing."
That's not the case when protesters in recent years began attacking Fauci for mask mandates, school closures and quarantines while making bizarre claims about the covid-19 vaccines.
"There's one sign that says, 'Fauci, You're Killing Us' and the other sign that says 'Fauci, You're Killing Us' but the rationale for those from the 1980s to 2023 is enormously different," Fauci said. "They couldn't be more different."
In one remarkable sequence in the documentary, Mannucci presses Fauci on whether he might have handled things differently looking back — like asking Americans to adopt masks sooner or ordering quarantines faster. "Maybe I should have done that," he says. "Yeah, I was wrong."
Mannucci relied on 10 long sit-downs with Fauci to develop trust with his subject and didn't clutter the documentary with testimonials from talking heads, wanting to focus on Fauci's experiences.
"I hope it's not viewed as a partisan message, but as a portrait of who he is and what he went through," said the director. "I hope that people on the other side, even if they never end up agreeing with him, will at least see somebody who is a real person, who's a thinking person, who's somebody maybe they can even relate to."
The film ends with Fauci's retirement from the institute late last year. Kantor suspects only time will tell where history will judge a man who dedicated his life to public service.