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Movie Review

Harmonica player, cancer fighter, Nobel Prize winner

Nobel Prize winner Jim Allison knows his way around a microscope.
Nobel Prize winner Jim Allison knows his way around a microscope.

Cancer picked the wrong fight when it took on Jim Allison.

“Jim Allison: Breakthrough,” directed by Bill Haney, is as stolid, low-key, and lucid as its subject. Genial and unkempt, his craggy face evidence of long days in the lab and late nights taking the edge off with co-workers at clubs, the 2018 Nobel Prize-winner in Medicine looks like a combination of Albert Einstein and Walt Disney. During a montage of home movie clips and old photos of his childhood he plays riffs on the harmonica and talks about growing up in a rural Texas town, where his father was the kind of doctor who still made house calls. His voice grows somber as he recalls when at 11 he watched his mother die of lymphoma, how his father never got over it, and young Jim had to be raised by kindly neighbors.

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But the tragedy didn’t break him, it made him stronger. As a kid he spent hours dabbling with his Gilbert chemistry set, sometimes with explosive results (“If you talk with scientists you’ll find out a lot of them were bomb makers,” he notes). Allison dissected frogs and horned toads and entered high school eager to learn more. That’s where he met someone who intsensified his passion for science — and first nemesis — a teacher who didn’t believe in Darwinism and refused to teach evolution. Allison objected and was punished, often “paddled with boards.”

No one supported him in his resistance to this ignorance and he was alone. But he never backed down.

This combination of inexhaustible curiosity, resilience, a tenacious adherence to what he knew to be true, and a determination to make the world a better place took Allison from obscurity to the top ranks of cancer researchers. He focused on the role of the immune system and T cells in fighting the disease — at the time a neglected, even disparaged approach to finding a cure. He wanted to know why it was that this normally diligent defense mechanism failed to detect and destroy the invading cancer.

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Haney illustrates the arcane processes involved in Allison’s research with simple animated graphics. He also tries to follow the years of frustrating, convoluted struggles with drug companies and the Food and Drug Administration that Allison and his colleagues (many of whom are interviewed, and all of whom are effusive in their praises of him) had to undergo before the drug they developed could be used. Meanwhile, Allison’s brother had developed a lethal form of cancer, adding extra urgency to his quest.

Haney parallels Allison’s story with that of Sharon Belvin, who is first seen as a robustly fit wife and mother, pumping iron in her backyard. But when she was 22 Belvin was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma, a fast-acting cancer with a poor prognosis. She endured many prolonged, debilitating, and painful tests and therapies before one of her doctors learned of Allison’s drug and she agreed to participate in a clinical trial. The effect was swift and stunning. The disease disappeared, and 17 years later she is still cancer free.

There have been many high points in Allison’s life, from receiving the Nobel Prize to playing his harmonica onstage at the Austin City Limits Festival with his idol Willie Nelson. But one he remembers with tears is being hugged by Belvin, the first patient he met face to face whose life he saved.

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★ ★ ★

JIM ALLISION: BREAKTHROUGH

Directed by Bill Haney. At Kendall Square. 90 minutes. Unrated.


Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.