Review

'The Pathological Optimist' profiles a notorious anti-vaccination doctor

Andrew Wakefield, the subject of Miranda Bailey’s documentary “The Pathological Optimist,” earned a special place in medical history — or hell, if you’re a science-believing parent of a vaccinated child — when he co-authored a controversial 1998 paper in the British journal the Lancet suggesting a link between the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine and autism.

Though he sparked the anti-vaccination movement, the paper was found to be grossly flawed, was retracted, and suspicions surrounding the doctor’s motivations led to his license being revoked. Wakefield’s still a hero to a fierce subset of stricken moms with autistic children, however, despite repeated studies showing no link.

But if there’s anything this carefully modulated portrait of the British expat makes clear, it’s that he’ll ride his notoriety for as long as he can to keep his unproved claims out there (including making a doc himself that got pulled from the 2016 Tribeca film festival after a public furor), to surround himself with adoring fans, and pay his legal bills over continued efforts to clear his name.

For a movie about so rabble-rousing a figure, it’s an unusually quiet portrait, set mostly as it is in his wooded Austin, Texas, enclave, where he lives with his protective, loving family. Up close, he’s a surprisingly soft-spoken professorial type with the expected air of disheveled arrogance. But you can also see the haze of ego-driven denial that keeps him focused on publicity and cultish survival, rather than truly proving his detractors wrong.

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‘The Pathological Optimist’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes

Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica

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An earlier version of this review incorrectly stated Andrew Wakefield's documentary "Vaxxed" was pulled from the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year. It happened in 2016.
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