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Kamis, Juni 11, 2009

Something the Lord Made

Synopsis

Alfred Blalock (1899-1964), a cardiologist (therefore, self-confident to the point of arrogance), leaves Vanderbilt for Johns Hopkins taking with him his lab technician, Vivien Thomas (1910-1985). Thomas, an African-American without a college degree, is a gifted mechanic and tool-maker with hands splendidly adept at surgery. In 1941, Blalock and Thomas take on the challenge of blue babies and invent bypass surgery. After trials on dogs, their first patient is baby Eileen, sure to die without the surgery. In defiance of custom and Jim Crow, Blalock brings Thomas into the surgery to advise him, but when Life Magazine and kudos come, Thomas is excluded. Will he receive his due?

Tells the story of the extraordinary 34-year partnership which begins in Depression Era Nashville in 1930, when Blalock hires Thomas as an assistant in his Vanderbilt University lab, expecting him merely to perform janitorial work. But Thomas' remarkable manual dexterity and scientific acumen shatter Blalock's expectations, and Thomas rapidly becomes indispensable as a research partner to Blalock in his first daring forays into heart surgery. The film traces the groundbreaking work the two men undertake when they move in 1941 from Vanderbilt to Johns Hopkins, an institution where the only black employees are janitors and where Thomas must enter by the back door. Together, they boldly attack the devastating heart problem of Tetralogy of Fallot, also known as Blue Baby Syndrome, and in so doing they open the field of heart surgery. The film dramatizes their race to save dying Blue Babies against the background of a Jim Crow (Racial Segregation) America, illuminating the nuanced and complex relationship the two sustain. Thomas earns Blalock's unalloyed respect, with Blalock praising the results of Thomas' surgical skill as being "like something the Lord made", and insisting that Thomas coach him through the first Blue Baby surgery over the protests of Hopkins administrators.

RESENSI FILM
It's gratifying to know that I'm not the only one who was surprisingly moved by this story. I had known only a tiny part of the story before the movie: that a white surgeon and a black technician developed the process that could save "blue babies." That's a huge accomplishment, but only a portion of the story.

Alan Rickman does a splendid job portraying Dr. Blalock. There are a few moments when his southern accent slips and a little British comes through, but in terms of portrayal of the character, he is convincing. Blalock is ambitious, and in fact so focused on his professional and medical goals that sometimes he's clueless as to what others are going through to get him what he wants. He's also at turns arrogant and compassionate...exactly what one would have to be to do what he did. One thing the movie communicates very effectively is just how much of a revolution this surgery was: not merely operating on a baby heart, Dr. Blalock opened the gate to surgery on *any* human heart. Rickman doesn't overdo it, but he gets the character across.

Mos Def steals the show, however, in his subtle portrayal of Vivien Thomas. There's no grandstanding in this performance; he makes us believe that we know Thomas, and that to know him is to love him. He plays a man who had more character in his little finger than most people find in their whole lives, and he does it with zero ham. It isn't just that he gives an understated performance...he becomes this man who feels deeply even though he doesn't express it loudly. You see it in his eyes, in his pauses, in his voice. It's hard to describe, except to say that beneath the calm, quiet, even deferential exterior there is, undeniably, a whole person, a fully human, noble, wise, mature, gracious character.

A previous commentator asks if the presentation, near the end of the story, of an honorary degree was supposed to be an apotheosis of sorts. Perhaps. I suspect, however, that it isn't the conferring of a degree but the unveiling of the portrait, that actually vindicates Thomas and lifts him to his place in the medical pantheon of Johns-Hopkins' larger-than-life wonder-workers. At the end of the film, Vivien is sitting in the lobby, looking at his own portrait next to that of Blalock's when he's paged as "Dr. Thomas." He has to wipe the tears from his eyes to respond to the page. Maybe it's the degree and the portrait together.

The same commentator asked whether the film omitted mention of Thomas's eventual title. Actually, there's a scene immediately after their arrival in Baltimore in which the Director of Laboratories gives Vivien some money and tells him to bring coffee and a donut. At the end of the film, when Blalock calls Vivien's office, we see Vivien's title on the office door: Director of Laboratories. The irony is sweet.

This is a compelling, touching film, with wonderful performances all around


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