The movie critique portion of this review was written by my colleague Ishmael Hurst

It is too rare, in the modern age, that our greatest scientists and innovators are presented to the public eye. Dr. Oliver Sacks (Awakenings, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales), a visionary in the field of neurology, bridged the gap between the layman’s understanding of sophisticated science over the course of his decades-spanning writing career. Where his peers and predecessors sought to separate subjective insights from objective truths, Sacks saw the subject as principal to the subject matter. In Oliver Sacks: His Own Life, director Ric Burns uses a blend of archival and exclusive footage to illustrate the journey of a man who, until the end, explored and valued the lives of his patients beyond their symptoms. We are given the lens through which Dr. Sacks reflected and appreciated his own beautiful, often tragic life after learning of the terminal cancer diagnosis that would come to end it.

Many may recognize Sacks from his portrayal by Robin Williams in Awakenings (1990), which although steeped in 90’s sentimentality, is an excellent portrayal of and outside-the-box thinking when it came to medical care. Sacks immersed himself in the curious nature of unique states and perceptions. He studied extreme cases of neurological disability, treated his subjects with friendly pathos and a sincere human touch, and translated them into writing that changed popular understanding of their afflictions.

 

While he dedicated his life to observing and relaying the experiences of others, Sacks was compelled to keep his personal life hidden. As a gay man in an age of heightened homophobia, where loving another man out loud would have seen him disbarred and disgraced, he accepted celibacy for several decades and untied himself from romantic pursuits. Instead, he lived his life in reckless contrast to his time with a lab coat, developing an extreme substance abuse problem driven by curiosity that bordered on suicidal. He had an image as a bulky, weightlifting biker with a wild streak, but all the while remained dedicated to his work. Though he kicked his drug habit years before, Sacks didn’t accept love into his life until his late 70s, when he met fellow writer Bill Hayes. In His Own Life, Sacks and Hayes’ relationship is portrayed as a happy conclusion to a solitary existence. In one heartrending scene, the camera lingers on Hayes’ composed but tearful face as Oliver explains his diagnosis to his friends and colleagues.

Ric Burns succeeds in portraying a man of words by focusing on the man’s words, and the film does not strive for much more. His Own Life works in showing us an extraordinary man who chooses to focus on his extraordinary life rather than his imminent death. Do not expect a thrilling adventure with twists and turns; wait for the biopic if that’s your thing. If you’re curious about the doctor and his work, I can’t suggest his bibliography strongly enough, and if you want a crash course, read one of his incredibly provoking op-eds in The New York Times. As Burns deftly determined, it’s best to let Dr. Sacks speak for himself.

Video Quality

Oliver Sacks: His Own Life comes to Blu-Ray in its original aspect ratio from a gorgeous high definition master. The film mostly consists of new footage with occasional archival footage and copious amounts of photos and graphs. The documentary footage looks as technically excellent as it can look in high definition. The transfer appears to have plenty of room to breathe and there are no issues with compression artifacts, banding or other digital nuisances. The footage of the older material seems to be the best version of it that would be possible, with most of it looking pretty strong. Interview segments look sleek and clear depending on the filming conditions with natural skin tones and detailed facial features. The colors featured in the film are natural and vibrant as they provide a nice visual pop on screen. Black levels are appropriately deep and give way to a nice amount of detail in shadows. I do not see how this set could have been improved visually. It’s a beautiful transfer handled with care by Kino Lorber. 

Audio Quality

This Blu-Ray comes with both a stellar DTS-HD 5.1 & 2.0 Master Audio track that captures this story perfectly. Dialogue is the driving force of the film, and it comes through crisp and clear without being clipped by any competing sounds. The filmmakers do a really great job of capturing their subjects and making sure all this information comes through with supreme clarity. The music and the score from Brian Keane establish the mood of the film, and those sounds are resolved well here as music often sleeks throughout the room. The chatter within some of the smaller gatherings they capture provides a nice base texture to the proceedings. Ambient sounds are precisely placed in the rear channels. The audio track is not pushed to the limit with this content, but it nonetheless proves to be an excellent sounding presentation for this feature. There are optional English SDH subtitles included for those who desire them. 

Special Features

  • Deleted Scenes: Nineteen minutes of unused material is provided here consisting of additional interviews with Oliver and those closest to him. If you enjoyed the feature, you should take some time to explore this supplement. 
  • Trailers: A two-minute trailer for Oliver Sacks: His Own Life is provided here. There are also trailers provided for Acasa My Home and M.C. Escher: Journey to Infinity

 

Final Thoughts

Oliver Sacks: His Own Life is a fairly engrossing portrait of one of the most incredible minds that the modern world has ever known. The movie does not always fully capture what made him such a special individual, but you are never less than invested in what Sacks chooses to delve into with his final years on this mortal plane. This is only one version of a man who has lived a life worthy of a great number of feature films. Kino Lorber and Zeitgeist Films have released a Blu-Ray with a frankly stunning A/V presentation and a nice selection of unseen footage that enriches the package as a whole. While capturing the end of his life, this film is a good starter course for those who want to begin learning about a man of multitudes. Recommended 

Oliver Sacks: His Own Life is currently available to purchase on Blu-Ray, DVD and Digital. 

Note: Images presented in this review are not reflective of the image quality of the Blu-Ray.

Disclaimer: Kino Lorber and Zeitgeist Films have supplied a copy of this disc free of charge for review purposes. All opinions in this review are the honest reactions of the author.

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