Still: A Michael J Fox Movie review – affecting portrait of film star’s courage
This sensitive but flawed documentary retells the inspirational story of Michael J Fox, the babyfaced Hollywood star of 80s hits including Back to the Future and TV’s Family Ties, who stunned the showbusiness world in 1998 by announcing his Parkinson’s diagnosis. It was a condition he had kept secret for seven years, having controlled it with medication and cleverly masked it on screen with his hyperactive high-energy tics, tricks and mannerisms, until the condition had deteriorated too far.
The film takes us through some of his moments from the TV comedy Spin City – his final TV gig prior to going public with the diagnosis – and, heartwrenchingly, you can see how the symptoms were beginning to show. It’s an arresting watch, although in addition to dramatic reconstructions of his childhood, film-maker Davis Guggenheim has a cutesy-ironic habit of using clips from Fox’s movies themselves to dramatise key moments in Fox’s life: an unnecessary, distracting and slightly naive approach, eliding the public and private personae.
Guggenheim interviews Fox and shows his daily life with his family and his personal trainer-therapist; his tremors are far more obvious when he is walking the streets than when he is sitting down talking. We also see Fox’s activism, persuading the political establishment to invest more in Parkinson’s research. In tune with the actor’s natural magnanimity, the movie does not mention the way blowhard commentator Rush Limbaugh had to apologise in 2006 for accusing Fox of exaggerating his symptoms or deliberately going off his meds for a pro-Democrat TV spot. And unlike his autobiography Lucky Man, the film does no more than hint at the sexual success that Fox enjoyed as a young star before meeting his wife, Tracy Pollan. (He memorably wrote that women who once wouldn’t give him the time of day now invited him to read it off their bedside clocks.)
Fox is a thoroughly likable man, utterly without self-pity, but perhaps also without reflection: sometimes Guggenheim has to press him on how he never says he’s in pain. It could be that his natural upbeat style is his survival mechanism.
What emerges from this film is how funny Fox is: the movies themselves don’t tell you that as clearly as his work on TV comedy in front of a studio audience. There is also something glorious about his rags-to-riches life story when young Fox, living in poverty in LA as a wannabe actor, first breaks up the room with his audition for the sitcom Family Ties. (He was also reliably funny doing talkshows or accepting awards.)
Perhaps Fox and the film itself don’t quite put us inside his anguish at first getting the diagnosis and then his decision to go public, but his courage is the more moving for being understated. And there is a piercingly bleak moment when he says that his illness felt real to him in a way that success didn’t. I wish that his early life could have been told more simply without those ironised faux-biog clips, but this is a highly watchable and affecting film.
• Still: A Michael J Fox Movie screened at the Sundance film festival.