Oliver Sacks is the kind of subject for whom any portrait has an extremely high floor. There’s a patience and an accessibility in his written work that, if mirrored in the approach of any kind of biography, offers a welcome kind of clarity.
“Oliver Sacks: His Own Life” uses conversations with Sacks himself as a kind of rudder, a personal guide through the many of the chapters of his own story. Beginning with an overview of Sacks’ early years spent adrift and following through to an unexpected second act as a bestselling writer, Ric Burns’ documentary offers a calm and measured look at Sacks’ legacy.
One of the other built-in benefits of profiling Sacks is the wealth of written accounts he left during his life, not just in the published works that have become standard entry points into accessible understandings of the neurological field. A refrain that comes through “HIs Own Life” is the way that those who knew him describe his overwhelming appetite for writing, even those thoughts that he intended solely for his own personal readership. As a way to supplement stories about the origins of some of Sacks’ most well-known works, Burns includes visuals of manuscripts in handwritten, typed, and water-stained forms.
There’s a surprising, clear-headed ease in channeling his past misgivings — during the time when he was taking hours-long motorcycle sojourns through Southern California in between smashing state weightlifting records — that comes from having Sacks’ own voice recalling the days of struggle that predated his success. “HIs Own Life” features him reading from his own work and observations, but it blends that with his extemporaneous anecdotes and conversational vulnerability when outlining the darker periods of his childhood and early adult years.
Roughly following the chronological pathway from those initial stretches in academia through his field work that would bring him to a vast, global audience, “His Own Life” doesn’t necessarily set out to be inspiring. Much like the scientists and writers and artists whose interviews make up a large bulk of the film characterize his work, the film doesn’t paint Sacks as an unquantifiable genius or the product of pure determination. Even Sacks describes how that gradual movement into the literary world was a function of a series of happy accidents. The wider attention that he garnered — including but not limited to the 1990 film adaptation of his book “Awakenings” — is painted as a result of an organic interest in Sacks’ style, rather than of someone desperate to will the public into sharing his passions.
Though “Oliver Sacks: His Own Life” is a celebration in the style of many other “American Masters” entries, Burns still allows room to acknowledge that not all response to Sacks’ work was as positive as the interview subjects’ various forms of praise. Some saw his career as capitalizing on those case studies. Despite the welcoming air he gives in these interviews and in the stories of his friends and colleagues, “His Own Life” outlines many stretches where Sacks was beset by doubt in himself and the reception his work received. (It’s not exactly comparable, but there’s also a moment of Sacks playing a Bach cantata on a piano, arriving at a wrong note, and playfully deciding he’d done enough already.)
Burns also balances the task of identifying Sacks’ defining abilities and painting how much he was a product of his collaborations. Though the film’s first introduction is to the man himself, it’s quickly followed by a circular gathering of trusted editors and associates. If he’s holding court, it’s not just with the camera crew. The film has a deceptive kind of simplicity in those observational moments, free from flourishes or complications. There’s an emotional ebb and flow that allows for a broad spectrum of disappointments and fallow periods before arriving at the portion of Sacks’ life when his own accounts of particular patients garnered both he and them widespread attention.
Those unguarded, candid stretches among friends were captured in the months before his death back in the summer of 2015. “His Own Life” crests with a beautifully composed look at those final weeks, told through memories of final visits and capped off with Sacks narrating his own farewell essay of sorts. Six years later, this film of his life plays out like an extended version of one of those intimate office gatherings, with reminiscing about all the heartbreaks and breakthroughs that dotted Sacks’ life in equal measure. In the many ways it’s straightforward, it also allows for the same care that helped make him a transformational figure for himself and those moved to action by his work.
“Oliver Sacks: His Own Life” airs as part of the “American Masters” series, Friday at 9 p.m. on PBS. Previous installments of “American Masters” are available to stream via the PBS app.