The new Marvel superhero movie, Doctor Strange, is about a superhero who taps into the vast infinities of the multiverse to cast magical spells. But it is also, and this is very important, about a doctor. Stephen Strange worked very hard to put himself through medical school, and although he lets his expertise go to his head, he’s deeply committed to healing the sick and – when he himself becomes afflicted – he goes on an equally difficult journey to heal himself.
Stories about doctors abound through literature, cinema, and the rest of popular culture. It’s a job on which we all rely, but about which many of us harbor intense anxieties. What’s more, it is a job that attracts life-and-death situations, sometimes on a daily basis, and that makes it rife with dramatic potential. Doctor Strange is just the latest in a very long line of films about the medical profession, and that begs the question: which one is the best?
We asked our panel of film critics – Crave’s William Bibbiani, Legion of Leia’s Witney Seibold and Collider’s Brian Formo – to each pick only one film that represents the pinnacle of the subgenre, and as usual, they couldn’t agree on a thing. Find out which films they chose, let us know your favorites and come back next Wednesday for another all-new, highly debatable installment of The Best Movie Ever!
Witney Seibold’s Pick: Persona (1966)
Doctors make for fascinating dramatic constructs. Given your average doctor’s level of skill and education, people of medicine occupy a rarefied air in society, projecting a godlike mastery of human life. Just as often, though, doctors are depicted as masterful egotists, who let their own godlike image go to their head. Either way, stories of doctors tend to be vocational stories of humility. They are either about living in grace through one’s vocation, or re-attaining grace within one’s vocation (even after witnessing it slip away, à la Frankenstein). One’s identity as a doctor is never in question.
Except for that one masterful film Persona, which is certainly one of Ingmar Bergman’s best films, and is arguably one of the best films of all time. In his 1966 masterpiece, Bergman uses a deconstructed cinematic language (he breaks the fourth wall on a few notable occasions) to tell the story of an actress who has recently gone hysterically mute, and the nurse who is assigned with the task of making her speak again. The two of them abscond to a remote island where the nurse chats about who she is, reveals secrets, and becomes increasingly allured/repelled by the actress. Eventually, their regard becomes so strong that their personalities begin to merge in an ineffable way.
The notion of psychological healing is at the fore of Persona‘s many themes, and the question of who is healing whom, who needs to be healed, and what that may mean when it comes to a social power dynamic, are all explored. The actual medical themes are secondary, but any opportunity to see Persona should be taken.
William Bibbiani’s Pick: And the Band Played On (1993)
I admire doctors and, like the rest of us, I depend on them. But I am also horribly aware that they are mere human beings, possessed of expertise but otherwise just doing the best they can. Sometimes that’s enough. Sometimes, not even close. Perhaps that’s why, when I think about the best movie ever made about doctors, I gravitate towards Roger Spottiswoode’s sweeping and frustrating drama And the Band Played On, about the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic and the doctors and patients who made great sacrifices to raise awareness of the terrible new plague and invent new ways to research and treat it.
Half a mystery, half an exposé, half a melodrama, there’s a lot going on in And a Band Played On. A masterfully edited production, it segues from the initial spread of the disease to the doctors who first discovered it, their frustrated efforts to acquire funding for an illness many politicians were eager to ignore as a “gay” plague, the horrors of trying to study a disease unlike any known before it. Roger Spottiswoode casts a wide net and retrieves a great bounty. It’s a film that races from one scene to the next with great suspense, that offers many reasonable perspectives, and ultimately gives the impression that the world itself is the protagonist here, and all of the players – respectable actors like Matthew Modine, Sir Ian McKellan, Alan Alda, Lily Tomlin, Richard Gere, Steve Martin, Anjelica Huston, et al – are themselves merely cells within a larger organism, damaged but desperate to fix themselves.
There are many other wonderful films that just happen to have doctors in them, or that revolve around the medical profession in a more focused way. I also highly recommend Malice, Gross Anatomy and Side Effects, if you’re eager to go searching. But when I think of the medical profession as a whole I think about And the Band Played On, and I am both assured and worried, because there are noble people working to keep us all alive and healthy, and I have some idea of just how hard they have to work.
Brian Formo’s Pick: The Skin I Live In (2011)
Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) initially had good intentions as a doctor. The plastic surgeon created a synthetic skin that can withstand burns, cuts and damage. It’s to honor his late wife who died in a car accident. So why does he have a woman (Elena Anaya) locked in his chic basement as he molds her into a beautiful and eternal near carbon copy of his dead wife?
I’m not choosing The Skin I Live In as the best doctor movie because Ledgard is the best doctor to appear in a movie, that honor would go to someone far less vain, like say the foreign aid doctors of The Painted Veil or the AIDs doctors of And the Band Played On. I’m choosing the pulpy vanity movie because of how beautifully Pedro Almodovar uses the perfection of the external as a way to expose some internal oddities. This is a film with perfect skin and sadistic arteries. The woman who is held captive in a room full of IKEA furniture is constantly scrawling notes on the wall while surveillance cameras record her every movement. She’s a sexy Frankenstein experiment gone wrong. The surveillance is because the Doctor is so astounded with his work—taking someone and making them wholly new—but he’s so in awe of his creation that he wants to observe it at all times, rather than let her re-enter the world.
The truth is, of course, more diabolical and can’t be listed here. What seems like a perverse tale remains perverse, but also reminds us that even a plastic surgeon isn’t really working on the surface of things, but instead using the surface to cover up something negatively felt on the inside. In Ledgard’s case, his own trauma is being removed by creating a new surface for his subject, but by removing his trauma he is inflicting a new one on her. The Skin I Live In presents a pieced together body as the perfect representation of a fractured mind.