‘Jim Allison: Breakthrough’ Review: Taking On Cancer

Documentaries about innovative figures don’t always offer correspondingly innovative filmmaking. But even coloring within the lines of conventional biographical storytelling, “Jim Allison: Breakthrough” provides an accessible introduction to James P. Allison, who, along with Tasuku Honjo of Japan, won a Nobel Prize in 2018 for discoveries in cancer immunotherapy.

Allison developed an antibody to keep T-cells, the white blood cells that attack viruses, in attack mode when faced with tumors. The film suggests that the research was personal: Allison’s mother died of lymphoma, and a brother’s experience of prostate cancer, from which he ultimately died, is chronicled throughout. We are told that Allison raised the prospect of the immune system’s cancer-fighting potential at a speech at the Texas Legislature in 1981, when he advocated teaching evolution in the state’s schools. (For Allison, who grew up in Texas, that issue was a long-term fight, too.)

The director, Bill Haney, intercuts Allison’s story with that of Sharon Belvin, whom Allison says is the first patient he met from the drug trials. The film does a solid job of explaining the barriers — justified skepticism, professional groupthink, the high cost of long-term research — that Allison faced in proving that a new kind of treatment could work.

Cutesier material — a story about how Allison once performed with Willie Nelson at a bar — adds levity to a heavy subject but also plays like pandering, and slow-motion footage of, say, Allison walking the streets of New York just looks like padding. The grind of research isn’t necessarily cinematic, nor need it be.

Jim Allison: Breakthrough

Rated PG-13 for discussions of cancer. Running time: 1 hour 31 minutes.

Jim Allison: Breakthrough

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