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    Miracles, mysteries, and mayhem: Medicine at the movies

    You may know how to treat a wound or perform CPR. But do you know how “frozen” patients came alive, why Patch Adams loved rubber noses, or how a Black lab assistant changed cardiology? These films fill you in and offer an escape amid this pandemic winter.

    A couple watches a movie on a TV screen

    Outside, the cold weather has arrived, and the pandemic rages onward. We’re all feeling cooped up, burned out, and desperate for some distraction. Thankfully, an at-home night at the movies can take us out of ourselves and, when viewed together, bring us a bit closer to others.

    So, AAMCNews has gathered a list of must-see medical movies. These 10 films cover a lot of ground, spanning medical mysteries, firebrand physicians, racial inequities, vicious villains, and even pandemic-driven dramas.

    And though some of these films offer more accuracy than others, we hope they all provide a bit of uplift, insight, or just a simple, soothing escape.

    1. “Awakenings”

      Patients at a long-term care facility in the Bronx sit trapped in endless stillness — the result of a long-ago brain infection. But in 1969, Dr. Malcolm Sayer — a character based on renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks, MD — arrives and suggests that a new Parkinson’s disease medication might help.

      Soon, seemingly frozen bodies come to life, and patients are dancing and speaking for the first time in decades. Meanwhile, Sayer, portrayed by Robin Williams, experiences a personal thawing as he connects with Leonard Lowe, a sweet-natured patient played by Robert De Niro. Lowe savors his phenomenal rebirth, but he is ultimately slammed by the constraints of hospital life, medication side effects, and the tragic reversal of the treatment’s effectiveness.
    2. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”

      As one of the most effective movies about the dehumanization of people with mental illnesses, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” shook viewers in 1975 — and remains chilling today.

      Prison inmate Randle McMurphy, played by Jack Nicholson, feigns mental illness to avoid labor but lands himself in an equally oppressive institution. There, he battles head nurse Mildred Ratched, who believes patients crave order and dispenses pills to keep them in line.

      Filmed at Oregon State Hospital — where the superintendent agreed to play one of the film’s doctors — “Cuckoo’s Nest” pushes viewers to contemplate issues of patient autonomy and institutional power. In unflinchingly painful scenes, it depicts forced lobotomies and other horrifying abuses.

      Meanwhile, McMurphy provides a stark contrast to the grim treatment, teaching inmates to play basketball and sneaking in women for a daring night of revelry.

      One of the many sad features of “Cuckoo’s Nest” is that some patients who had admitted themselves to Ratched’s hospital could have left but feared life outside it. The film offers a hint of light at the end, though, as one of McMurphy’s proteges escapes in the hopes of taking back his fate.
    3. “The Big Sick”

      This 2017 film manages to pull off a rare cinematic feat: It blends romantic comedy, medical mystery, family drama, and personal journey into one compelling tale.

      “The Big Sick,” based on a true story, depicts graduate student Emily Gordon’s near-fatal infection and the medically induced coma it necessitates. At the same time, it chronicles her boyfriend Kumail Nanjiani’s conflicts with his traditional Muslim parents, his struggles to become a stand-up comedian, his terror at possibly losing his budding love, and ultimately, his extraordinary experience of the power of human connection.
    4. “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”

      For a long time, Henrietta Lacks was known by only a handful of people — even though she had contributed to the health of thousands. In 1951, Lacks, a poor African American woman, was diagnosed with cervical cancer, and researchers at the Johns Hopkins Hospital cultured some of her cells without her consent.

      Lacks’ cells — unlike any before them — yielded a robust cell line that made possible major scientific advances, including gene mapping and the development of key vaccines. This 2017 HBO film — based on the bestselling book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks — tracks the efforts of journalist Rebecca Skloot to reconstruct Lacks’ story while helping daughter Deborah Lacks, portrayed by Oprah Winfrey, understand the mother she lost at a young age. Lacks’ cells continue to contribute to research today, and her story expands future physicians’ understanding of medical ethics and our health system’s treatment of Black people.

    5. "Patch Adams”

      In this drama/comedy, a depressed Hunter “Patch” Adams admits himself to a psychiatric hospital in 1969 — and there discovers his calling to help heal others. Once in medical school, Adams, played by Robin Williams, clashes with an establishment that bristles at the notion that clowning around is often more healing than any medication.

      This 1998 film — based loosely on a true story — includes a love interest, a courtroom battle, and Adams’ moments of deep despair. Some viewers reject the film as overly simplistic, but many others applaud its focus on the healing roles of humor and humanity even in the most painful situations.
    6. “Something the Lord Made” 

      In 1944, Johns Hopkins Hospital cardiologist Alfred Blalock, MD, performed the first human heart surgery, saving a “blue baby” from an inadequate oxygen supply. By his side was his collaborator, Vivien
      Thomas, a Black lab assistant who had no formal medical training.

      Thomas — portrayed by Mos Def in the HBO version of an award-winning magazine article — worked with Blalock for more than 30 years. He began with menial tasks as a lab assistant but soon revealed a knack for creative approaches and impressive dexterity with complex machinery. Trying an experimental heart procedure on dogs, Thomas showed such deft surgical skills that Blalock called them otherworldly.

      Rampant racism meant that Thomas did not get acclaim for his achievements at the time. But the film ends with a 1976 ceremony in which Johns Hopkins University bestowed an honorary doctorate on Thomas and a cinematic shot of portraits of Blalock and Thomas hanging prominently on the hospital's wall.

    7. “The Normal Heart”

      When the AIDS epidemic hit New York City in the early 1980s, no one understood the deadly infection, and many political leaders were unwilling to give it the focus it needed. “The Normal Heart” features Mark Ruffalo as activist Ned Weeks, who fought for those afflicted with the disease, and Julia Roberts as one of the earliest physicians willing to tackle it. Other prominent actors play key roles as well, including Alfred Molina as Weeks’ brother who harbored homophobic beliefs.

      Released by HBO in 2014, this adaptation of a play covers much ground: images of disturbing skin lesions, the callous treatment of infected men in the health care system, desperate struggles to gain research funding, and Weeks’ clashes with other activists worried about his intense approach. Most profoundly, though, it tells the stories of a community that lost so much at a time when the country didn’t seem to care.
    8. “The Soloist”

      When Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez stumbles across Nathaniel Ayers, the homeless man’s violin is badly broken and his mind is tortured by voices — but he still produces extraordinary music.

      Based on a true story, this 2009 film portrays the relationship between the former Juilliard student and the journalist who struggled to connect him with a psychiatrist, supportive services, and musical opportunities. The movie effectively captures the interplay between mental illness and the chaos of homelessness. But it also deftly explores the question of how much one person can reasonably try to shape another person’s life.
    9. “Wit” 

      Literature professor Vivian Bearing — portrayed by Emma Thompson in this 2001 HBO remake of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play — uses her biting intellect to keep her life tightly controlled and other people at bay. But then Stage IV ovarian cancer strikes.

      Bearing soon faces demoralizing treatments provided by doctors portrayed as excessively distant. She also must come to terms with the painful costs of her staunch, self-imposed isolation.

      Still, in Thompson’s portrayal, Bearing manages to maintain impressive dignity, mostly through her beloved poetry and her extraordinary wit.

    10. Contagion”

      This one cuts close to home.

      If you can handle a tense thriller, “Contagion” will let you compare a fictionalized outbreak with the real-life onslaught of COVID-19. In this 2011 release, an American succumbs to a lethal microbe after a business trip to Hong Kong. Experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and elsewhere soon begin scrambling to contain the disease as economies collapse, social order crumbles, and thousands die. The storyline closely follows several key characters, including a blogger played by Jude Law who stymies progress by spreading conspiracy theories and Gwyneth Paltrow as a researcher who is driven to extreme measures by the frustrating pace of the vaccine approval process.

      Determined to achieve realism, screenwriter Scott Z. Burns consulted with medical experts when creating the film, including a Columbia University professor who, in a strange twist, later contracted COVID-19. We hope one feature of the blockbuster becomes reality: On screen, medicine ultimately prevails.

    Reel medicine: The runners-up

    When AAMCNews requested entries for our first-ever cinematic survey, we received several that were worthy but seemed to overlap in genre, tone, or topic with those in our top-10 list. Fans hoping for some “extras” can find them below:

    • Viewers who like their movie medicine with a big spoonful of humor can check out “Doc Hollywood.” This 1980s confection starring Michael J. Fox lands a big-city, hotshot doctor in a remote town — and ever-so-gently calls attention to the rural physician shortage.
    • “Outbreak,” released in 1995, offers a quirky version of a deadly virus story. In it, Dustin Hoffman battles a rapidly spreading microbe, a nefarious military conspiracy, and time as he races to stop the intentional destruction of an entire town.
    • One additional acclaimed film about the AIDS epidemic is “And the Band Played On,” which features Matthew Modine and portrays researchers’ attempts to unravel the mysterious disease. Another is the courtroom drama “Philadelphia,” starring Tom Hanks as a gay man battling both AIDS and workplace discrimination.