Movies about medicine may sound dry, but in the hands of the right filmmaker they can be thought-provoking, informative pieces that create a dialog about important health issues. Films such as And the Band Played On chronicled real-life medical and scientific discoveries, while Never Let Me Go presented a dystopian world where humans are treated as commodities.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest centers around R.P. Murphy, who feigns insanity to escape prison and is sent to a mental hospital. Once he realizes he may never get out, he leads a patient revolt against authoritative Nurse Ratched. The 1975 movie, which won five Academy Awards, opened people’s eyes to the treatment of the mentally ill in state facilities, especially the use of electroconvulsive therapy. Interestingly, that type of therapy has made a resurgence in treating illnesses such as acute depression, but with improvements, the treatment is now done in a much more controlled environment, and with anesthesia. The film serves as a reminder of medicine's evolution.
Click through the gallery to see what movies you should put on your must-watch—or must-watch-again—list.
(Photo: Michael Ochs/Getty Images)
And the Band Played On
This 1981 HBO film chronicles the very beginning of the AIDS epidemic, focusing on epidemiologist Don Francis’s struggles with society and medical politics in researching a new disease causing an increasing number of deaths in the gay community.
The film shed light on how AIDS began to affect the gay community, as well as the politics behind the discovery of the virus and how it’s transmitted. A must-watch for younger people who are unaware of how the AIDS epidemic started.
Based on the true story of neurologist Oliver Sacks, the film tells the story of victims of an encephalitis outbreak who are brought new life by a drug called L-Dopa, which restores them from their catatonic state but whose effects eventually begin to fade. The 1990 film strongly leans on the human side of medicine, while showing that the science of medicine is a process that needs to endure, even when there aren’t happy endings.
In Coma, young doctor Susan Wheeler notices an unnatural number of patients becoming comatose at her hospital and suspects there may be a conspiracy among the other physicians and hospital staff. You may argue that this version, and the recent A&E minseries, are nothing more than thrillers. But you can’t ignore the connection to the real-life controversy over selling organs, and the tens of thousands of people waiting for an organ donation.
Contagion, which came out in 2011, follows the rapid development of a pandemic that’s decimating populations around the world, and the race against time to find a vaccine. With daily reports of ebola, SARS and flu outbreaks in the news, it’s no wonder people are fascinated by microscopic organisms that have the capability of killing millions. The film also showed what most medical films don’t: how scientists track and try to stop mutating viruses, and the value of vaccines.
(Photo: Participant Media)
Never Let Me Go
Never Let Me Go wasn’t exactly billed as a movie about medicine, but the idea at the heart of the 2010 film—the value of human life—pushes it into that realm. The love triangle that frames the movie adds to the poignancy of the ultimate destiny of the characters that we see grow from childhood to their young adult years. We won’t spoil the entire plot, but we guarantee the film will have you thinking about the boundaries of medical advances.
(Photo: You Tube)
Dr. Jack MacKee is a successful surgeon wrapped up in his profitable career—until he gets the devastating news that he has throat cancer. As his perspective changes, going from doctor to patient, Jack has a realization about patient care and how to practice medicine. The 1991 film was less about MacKee’s comeuppance and more about seeing someone who represents the medical profession finally understand the impersonal, dismissive treatment patients sometimes go through.
Andrew Freeman is a California native with a degree in history from UCLA. He’s covered a wide range of topics for TakePart, but is particularly interested in politics and policy. Email Andrew |@natureofdabeast | TakePart.com