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In 1969, Dr. Malcolm Sayer (Robin Williams) is a quiet man, preferring to be alone, but extremely dedicated to his work. At the ward where he has recently been hired, he begins research on a group of patients who survived the 1917–1928 epidemic of encephalitis lethargica, leaving them all in disfigured, immobile, unresponsive states. Over time, he realizes that even though they appear to have no ability to sense or react to most stimuli, they all exhibit unique differences that reveal something deeper. One such patient is Leonard Lowe (Robert DeNiro), a middle-aged man in a near vegetative state since childhood. Sayer discovers that Leonard can communicate by pointing to letters on a Ouija board. After Sayer tests an altered drug used for Parkinson’s patients, he is able to ‘awaken’ Leonard and then the others, giving them back their lives, at least in some respects. That is, until an unexpected side effects causes a devastating setback.
Directed by Penny Marshall and based on the memoirs of real-life doctor Dr. Oliver Sacks, this fictionalized account is a deeply moving story of two men with more in common than they realize. DeNiro, in a role that easily could have become unbearably contrived, masterfully handles the slowly debilitating side effects of his treatment. Agonizingly effective, he stuns as a man akin to Rilke’s ‘The Panther‘, a poem his character notes is what the disease is like. It’s a harrowing performance. Williams is equally good in a powerfully restrained bit of acting, considering the man behind in the role. He elicits great sympathy from the viewer in what could be argued was his greatest dramatic (or otherwise) performance. An overall moving experience, Awakenings is a quiet, mournful tale that, despite its outcome, is truly inspiring.
Leonard, being the first to receive the new drug called L-Dopa, becomes the unnamed leader of the experimental trials. He and Dr. Sayer form a fast bond that sees the two working together to make the cure complete. While the boy trapped inside the man is desperate for a real life beyond the barred window and cold concrete walls of his hospital home, he also realizes he is not ready for the enormity of the outside world. What’s worse is the drug’s inability to sustain their awakened states. Leonard develops increasingly more aggressive ticks and spasms that keep him in exhaustive movement, shuffling about with little control. He is also prone to mood swings, aggravated by the hospital board’s refusal let him leave the facility, worried he is not safe on his own. For a time, due to his hostile behavior, he is separated from the others and placed with the more disturbed patients. Eventually, Sayer finds some balance with the medication and Leonard is brought back. Courageously, both he and Sayer continue to struggle to find a way to curb the condition. But he is a forecast for all the others in the ward, watching what their future is soon to be. During much of this, Sayer records the efforts of their experiments. On one occasion, Leonard is suddenly gripped in a horrifying seizure, spasms trembling him so severely, he can barely speak. Frightened, he tells Sayer to get the camera and the doctor complies, but feels the respectful, humanitarian gesture is to give the man dignity and stop. Leonard, in agony demands Sayer continue, just able to stammer a single word: Learn.
Leonard has something Sayer does not, despite the benefits the doctor seems to possess as one not afflicted. He has experience, wholly confined in his useless body for decades, watching the world pass him by with no way to be part of it. He knows the horror, and fears returning, but accepts what is happening while hoping to contribute to further research. They are far from finding a cure, he knows that, but he knows too that he is important, that every tick and every spasm can be the key. Sayer’s work has unlocked much about the condition and to think that there might be hope for others, drives Leonard not to give up. The moment is brief, but crucial as Leonard is in a wild state of flux, able to have moments of relaxed, cognizant interactions, and then in an instant, as if he were an automaton, turn off, frozen in the position he is in. He feels dead inside when it happens, a nightmare in itself. When he is struck by the violent seizure, he cries to Sayer, asking what is happening and then instructs him to start filming.
It’s vital that Leonard be both out of control of his body but still in control of his mind during this, as this and many scenes reflect. It generates the necessary sympathy as we image the terrifying truth of his and the other’s predicament. DeNiro wisely avoids over-playing the ticks and jerks, something that could have really upended the performance, instead, all of it feeling genuine, even organic. We forget that it is a performance. The attack in this moment is shocking in that it’s the first that really seems to paralyze him, as the others sort of just stop him. It’s deeply internal and seizes him in great pain. It’s a struggle to watch, and yet when we understand why Leonard wants to be filmed, it breaks us. Would we have his courage?
As important as Leonard is, Sayer is also impactful, his reluctance to film his new friend, giving up the oath and dedication he has committed to in finding a cure so that the man keeps his dignity, is inspiring. Williams lets the moment be about DeNiro, but just the same, his presence is immeasurable as the two make for a powerful combination.
The notion of sacrifice has always been one of the more emotional aspects in film. While Leonard’s action might not seem directly sacrificial, it is in fact entirely so. To suspend medical attention or even the immediate care of the staff while he succumbs to the seizure is as affecting as any moment in the movies when one gives up their life for another. Leonard is saving the lives of untold others in a future he will never know.
Oliver Sacks (book), Steven Zaillian (screenplay)
Robert De Niro, Robin Williams, Julie Kavner