Film Review: Oliver Sacks – His Own Life

Words: Jamie Morris
Tuesday 28 September 2021
reading time: min, words

Coming to cinemas for one night only, His Own Life is among this year’s most powerful documentaries...


Director: Ric Burns
Starring: Oliver Sacks, Temple Grandin, Christof Koch
Running time: 114 minutes

Doctor, writer, biker, body-builder – these are just a few labels that could be used to describe late neurologist Oliver Sacks, subject of the documentary His Own Life. As a man who dedicated his entire career to exploring the minds of other people, Sacks eventually decided that it would only be fitting that he himself be his final case study, and this film captures his final days in all of their introspective and inspiring glory.

It may come as a surprise that the footage of the terminally-ill Sacks, filmed shortly before his death in 2015, is joyous to watch. Despite being diagnosed with end-stage liver cancer and being told he has just six months left to live, the 82-year-old is full of energy, revelling in telling anecdotes and proudly showcasing his collection of periodic table memorabilia. Any preconceptions that Sacks’s story will be dry or morbid are instantly dismissed.

Sacks’s own narration is accompanied by interviews from an extensive range of old friends and colleagues, all recorded after his death. These serve as a melancholy reminder of his passing – it’s easy to forget when he looks so healthy in the footage – but help to construct a comprehensive chronicle of his life that covers an array of amusing, sad, bizarre and fascinating episodes.

More than just a tribute, it feels like a continuation of Sacks’s legacy, or maybe even a manifesto of his compassionate worldview

Director Ric Burns sets himself the almost absurdly ambitious task of arranging these in order and assembling them into a cohesive narrative in under two hours – but while it occasionally verges on being a little hard to follow, he absolutely sticks the landing. The film takes us through Sacks’s childhood obsession with inanimate objects, struggles with his sexuality and battle with amphetamine addiction, and makes the compelling case that each of these would eventually inform his many incredible scientific breakthroughs. 

The presentation is fairly routine – interviews in front of huge bookcases, grainy archive footage, the occasional reconstruction or animation – but it’s polished and keeps the focus on Sacks himself instead of distracting the viewer with artistic flourishes. The story being told here is utterly compelling, and that’s what counts. 

There’s something really touching about seeing people come together to share their respect and admiration for Sacks through a project like this. More than just a tribute, it feels like a continuation of his legacy, or maybe even a manifesto of his compassionate worldview. Once the credits have finished rolling, the world feels that little bit brighter.

Did you know? Oliver Sacks was portrayed by Robin Williams in the 1990 film adaptation of his memoir, Awakenings. A brief clip of Sacks visiting the set and meeting Williams is shown in the documentary.

Oliver Sacks: His Own Life is in cinemas on Wednesday 29 September

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