October is National Breast Cancer Awareness month and the perfect time to unveil Bill Haney’s new documentary about Texas immunologist and Nobel laureate James P. Allison, the executive director of Immunotherapy Platform at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
Narrated by another Texas native, Woody Harrelson, the straightforward film “Jim Allison: Breakthrough” doesn’t rely on sensationalism to tell the compelling story of how Allison’s research led to an antibody that used T-cells to fight tumors in what has been regarded as a major scientific advancement in the race to cure cancer.
The film opens with 71-year-old Allison playing a harmonica at the site of the small, wooden home in Alice, where he spent his childhood.
We learn that his father was a doctor who made house calls in the former boomtown with a predominantly Hispanic community. He grew up with two older brothers, Murphy and Mike, and his mother was sick in bed a lot. Allison was only 11 when she passed away from lymphoma.
Now, six decades later, the University of Texas graduate’s cancer research has helped more than a million patients worldwide with the development of Ipilimumab, a medication that has saved hundreds of thousands of people.
“Breakthrough” features interviews with Allison and colleagues Lewis Lanier, professor UC San Francisco and Max Krummel, a former Ph.D student who worked under Allison at UC Berkeley, and cancer survivors like Sharon Belvin who was diagnosed at age 22 with melanoma. She took part in the clinical trials for Allison’s research, which eventually saved her life.
The majority of Haney’s documentary is focused on the science behind Allison’s work.
It’s shot and edited in a manner that keeps the audience engaged.
With his white scraggly hair and beard, Allison is quite a colorful character who shares stories of Texas honky-tonks and drinking cold beers to unwind at night and then putting in a 36-hour workday at the lab developing his research. Those moments of levity offer a nice respite from the film’s scientific motif.
Allison would eventually lose a brother and two uncles to cancer, which only motivated him to push harder for a cure.
The audience is kept in suspense as the race for finding a cure gets closer. We watch Allison move past setbacks while relocating from Texas to California to New York and back to Texas to ensure the success of his research.
Harrelson offers narration throughout the documentary while another Texan figures prominently in the film.
Willie Nelson appears in archival footage (without his signature beard), photos and a live performance of “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” at ACL with Jim Allison onstage, a little nervous, playing the harmonica.
Nelson became a constant figure in Allison’s life and a good friend.
“Jim Allison: Breakthrough” is a fascinating documentary and the perfect way to raise awareness in October during National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
The film’s Texas connection comes just as more cancer-related news surfaces from the Lone Star State. Beyonce’s father Mathew Knowles just revealed he is battling breast cancer on “Good Morning America.”
He hopes that his story will motivate more men to come forward and create a dialogue.
Early detection is key in the fight against cancer for women and men.