It’s easy to think that putting together a good documentary is a matter of checking the right boxes. Start with a compelling subject, add personal stories, recruit a celebrity narrator, thread in some compelling interviews, and top it off with a suspenseful conclusion – you should be all set. But despite having all of the right pieces, Jim Allison: Breakthrough ends up being less than the sum of its parts.
It’s hard to think of a more broadly compelling topic than a possible cure for cancer. Most people have been impacted by cancer in one way or another – as I write this, my mother is in her eighth month of treatment for breast cancer – and a cure for the disease could easily become the most important scientific accomplishment in a generation. Jim Allison knows that, but it doesn’t seem to be what drives him. After his mother died, an 11-year-old Jim learned that cancer had killed her. He had a knack for chemistry and eventually made curing cancer his life’s work. In 2018, nearly 60 years after his mother’s death, Allison was awarded a Nobel Prize in medicine for his efforts and their results. He’s also a killer harmonica player. Compelling subject: check.
But much of what writer/director Bill Haney did after selecting Allison as his subject undercuts his weighty and relatable subject matter. Haney doesn’t quite seem to know if he’s making a science documentary or the biography of an “iconoclast” in the medical world. The explanations of the scientific processes, discoveries, and disappointments are interesting, but they’re not quite enough to make a film, and Haney props them up with personal anecdotes of Jim as a genius who also likes to party with his grad students, and who has a couple of good stories about playing with Willie Nelson. Those stories are interesting enough, but in a way that they’d keep you entertained at your significant other’s family barbecue; they seem a bit tangential and out of place here.
Haney’s most confusing choice may have been the way he employs Woody Harrelson as the documentary’s narrator. Harrelson is a great actor, and he may well be a good narrator. But in Jim Allison: Breakthrough, he’s used infrequently to explain Allison’s take on medical concepts in a sentence or two – segments that are generally bookended with scientists explaining the same thing in interviews. And confusingly, the narration is scripted in present tense, while the interviewees are reflecting back and using past tense.
The film is most successful in demonstrating the impact of Allison and his work when Sharon Bevin, who almost certainly survived cancer due to Allison’s work, and her story are in the foreground. And the storyline in the last third (about the way Allison’s work was almost derailed by cost/benefit analysis decisions made by the pharmaceutical industry) is a compelling reminder of the high stakes in this story. It would have been interesting to see that narrative expanded.
Allison is certainly a worthy subject for a profile. His work may well have changed the course of medical history, and in doing so, changed the course of personal history for many of those who are battling or will battle cancer. But more than one thing can be true. We can understand and appreciate Jim Allison’s work and sacrifice, while also feeling like this film could have been told just as well through a long-form magazine article.