When Al Gore lost the 2000 presidential election, he found a new platform for his message in storytelling. One reason “An Inconvenient Truth” became a huge success for the environmental movement was Gore’s dramatic comeback made him a natural fit for the movies. He was a tireless advocate whose globe-spanning quest to save the planet excited audiences while bringing them closer to his cause. Now, it’s Joe Biden’s turn.
Judging by the powerful stories he told in a speech at the 2017 SXSW conference about his efforts to fight cancer, Biden would make a killer documentary subject. His appearance, part of SXSW’s Connect to End Cancer series, targeted the tech-savvy audience to play up his efforts to empower digital tools as a means to combat the disease. However, his speech had a distinctly cinematic arc that could easily transition to the big screen. Biden recently signed with CAA, and if the talent agency hasn’t found a top-shelf documentary filmmaker in its stable to capture Biden’s dramatic new stage in his career, it would be wise to move fast.
Setting aside the dramatic accident that killed his first wife and young child, Biden’s saga has an exciting throughline from the last two years alone. Traumatized by his son Beau’s death from brain cancer, Biden came close to running for president last year before doubling back, declining to jump into an arena where many people now say he could have handily defeated Donald Trump. These days, he’s motivated by that very same tragedy to enter the latest stage of his life.
Speaking at SXSW about the Biden Foundation, which continues the efforts of the White House Cancer Moonshot he launched while in office, Biden offered an emotional anecdote that screenwriters could easily identify as a key turning point. As Beau lay dying, the hospital needed to gather more data about his condition from another research facility. But the two institutions didn’t share the same data platforms and were incapable of interfacing during an urgent moment in Beau’s time of need. Instead, Biden explained that his son-in-law had to take a camera phone photo of information at the hospital to send it to an expert off-site. That heartbreaking story dovetails naturally into Biden’s decision to focus the resources of the Biden Foundation on improved databases to help cancer treatment worldwide.
In the front row, I witnessed the way Biden carefully made eye contact with members of the audience throughout his speech, meeting the cameras whenever they searched for him, and sometimes landing more poignant targets as well. Discussing the potential of radiotherapy, he spotted a young cancer patient in the front row. “You know all about that, don’t you, honey,” he said gently, and she nodded back. Just imagine that exchange in a pair of closeups and try to deny the tearjerking potential.
It occurred to me that if a good portion of politics is performance, then it’s a weapon to be wielded for good or ill. While Obama may be the contemporary movie star of our modern political age, and Trump its cartoon villain, Biden harkens back to a more classic mold. His bravado puts him in line with John Wayne, who clung to his image as a hardened gunslinger until his deathbed. That tough masculine heroism may not have the same currency these days, but the 2016 election proved the zeitgeist is in constant flux, and seemingly dated archetypes can swing back into the spotlight at any moment.
The night before Biden’s talk, I saw an old-fashioned western called “The Ballad of Lefty Brown,” screening in SXSW Film’s Narrative Spotlight section. The movie finds Bill Pullman playing a bumbling, well-intentioned sidekick to a daring shootist who’s abruptly killed in the desert. Suddenly, Pullman’s character must step into the spotlight and avenge his partner’s death. Writer-director Jared Moshe cleverly foregrounds a typical supporting role, magnifying the degree to which such characters are often treated as ineffectual compared to the leaders they serve. It’s exciting to watch Lefty gain more confidence and tackle the heroic role never available to him before. So it goes with Biden, who seemed more confident in his mission than ever before.
When Biden took the mic, he opened by acknowledging the unique environment for his speech. “Obviously, Pharrell’s not playing at the same time,” he said. “There must be something going on. I didn’t expect this many people.” Then he got serious. “There are 16 million people who die from cancer every year,” he said. “Experts predict that, if we don’t do something, by the year 2020, 26 million will die.”
Biden added that he began thinking about developing his cancer activism after deciding last Memorial Day weekend that he wouldn’t run for president. After talking with his family, he said, “none of us really had the stomach to do it. Nobody should run for president unless they’re willing to give every ounce of their being to it.” Biden gave a press conference at the White House explaining his decision and was asked by a journalist if he had any regrets. “I said that I would’ve loved to be the president who presided over the end of cancer as we know it.”
That was the first step toward launching the White House Cancer Moonshot. “I learned there was considerable need for greater collaboration among the disciplines,” Biden said, adding that President Richard Nixon had started initial efforts to fight the disease in 1971 “in all sincerity” by declaring a war on cancer. “President Nixon had no army to fight the war,” Biden said. “He had no resources. He had no clear strategy to win. But after 45 years of progress, after decades of funding researching and treating millions of patients, we now had an army. I learned there was a need for hope.”
Biden was keen on foregrounding the technological progress on cancer research supported by his institution, putting his argument in terms embraced by the tech sector that flocks to SXSW each year.
“As many of you techies in the audience know, we can now do a million-billion calculations per second,” he said. “The strategy we’ve been following until now is the equivalent of fighting the last war. We have a whole new array of weapons. We have an army.”
Outlining a range of new treatments and databases, Biden spoke of the support he’d received from companies like Amazon. “They said ‘Look, you’re going to need a lot of space in the cloud to accommodate all this data. We will make it available to you for free.’ What does Amazon have to do with curing cancer? There’s hope.”
After a surprisingly detailed overview of the tools his foundation hopes to grow, he found a way back to the emotional finale. His voice rose several octaves as he spoke about technological resources underutilized by the medical industry, such as Facebook’s algorithm to pick up on users exhibiting suicidal tendencies. Then he issued a rallying cry to a roomful of innovators. “South By Southwest has brought some of the most creative minds in the world,” he said. “Your generation can be the first generation on Earth to see cancer as a controllable or preventable disease rather than a death sentence.”
Even as he avoided a direct assault on the Trump Administration, he delivered a staunch assertion of his commitment. “The core of Republicans and Democrats are good, decent people, almost artificially separated by a new kind of partisanship. I’m confident we can break through it. I’m confident it can be done. I will do everything in my power to work with the new administration.”
We’ve had many clichéd cancer dramas weighed down by sentimental overstatement and self-importance, but Biden is a real-life cancer warrior and a victim of the grief it can cause. A superhero armed with fancier gadgets than anything in the Batcave, he’s in the process of laying the groundwork for a 21st-century battle. His new saga has started. Now all someone has to do is roll the cameras.