In her documentary about the disgraced doctor most identified as promoting the scientifically unproven claim that the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine causes autism, veteran filmmaker Miranda Bailey gives a human touch to Andrew Wakefield and tries to be neutral while framing the film with his attempt to bring a defamation lawsuit in Texas against English journalist Brian Deer. It was Deer who, in 2004, investigated Wakefield, finding conflicts of interest and ethical problems that helped lead in 2010 to Wakefield’s dismissal as a doctor and a retraction of the original 1998 Lancet article coauthored by Wakefield with twelve others, most of whom retracted their support for the claim of the vaccine-autism link.
While her film crew followed Wakefield and his wife, Carmel, and two children for about five years in Texas, where the Wakefields had moved after Andrew lost his medical license in England and the Lancet article was retracted, Bailey nevertheless includes the arguments against his assertion, such as displaying onscreen text indicating that about 100 scientific studies show no vaccine-autism link.
Wakefield comes off as a soft-spoken but beleaguered family man trying to resurrect his reputation and raising money for his legal fund. Carmel is shown as perhaps his most outspoken defender, and there are a number of scenes of his ardent fans standing and cheering for him, including at a chiropractic forum. Other scenes show supporters encouraging Wakefield to keep fighting for his contention that vaccines should be given singly, not all at once, because they overwhelm the immune system.
It’s hard to watch Wakefield’s increasing despair after he proclaims his optimism on screen, compounded by the Texas appeals court rejecting his defamation lawsuit toward the end of the documentary. Deeply in debt despite some sizable legal fund donations, the Wakefields are shown selling off their real estate assets. To cope with his troubles, Wakefield is shown obsessively chopping wood with his axe and putting it in huge piles. It’s a disturbing image to end the film.
In yet another eerie twist during the credits, Bailey includes a voicemail recording of someone telling her that making the documentary may damage her career. For free speech advocates, that comment can be construed as either helpful advice or a threat to the filmmaker.
Although the documentary provides newscasts and printed information on screen to relate the history of the Wakefield controversy, it spends the bulk of its time with Wakefield and his family. Bailey tries to make Wakefield less of a monster, and she has succeeded, but the fact remains that he is wrong.
The documentary had its premiere in New York and Los Angeles last fall and was still being shown through March in a few cities around the country. It also is available on iTunes. For more information about the controversy, see the recent Skeptical Inquirer article by James Randi at https://www.csicop.org/si/show/the_dangerous_delusion_about_vaccines_and_autism.
After I watched the film in Santa Monica (at the only theater in Los Angeles showing it), I asked the other four attendees—all women—what they thought about the documentary and Wakefield’s claim. One had an autistic child and, choking up, said that her son had fallen ill immediately after receiving the MMR vaccine and was never the same. All four supported Wakefield’s claim. When I asked them about the screen’s statement regarding the 100 studies showing no vaccine-autism link, one dismissed them, saying they were funded by pharmaceutical companies. That illustrates how difficult it is to change entrenched beliefs.
Both Wakefield and Bailey were there on the premiere night a few days before, but I found that no recordings or other information was left by them at the theater.