Michael J. Fox doesn’t want your pity. He’s too busy fighting

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(M) 95 minutes

Michael J. Fox goes out for a walk with his physical therapist beside him, in what looks like New York. His gait is too fast, his left foot dragging behind him, his arms swinging wider for balance, as if he’s leaning into the wind. He looks like he could fall at any moment and further down the street, after he says hello to a passing stranger, he does fall. It’s hard to watch, but very revealing of his character. He’s quickly back on his feet.

Michael J. Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease when he was 29. “I’m not pathetic… I’m a tough sonofabitch.”Credit: Apple TV+

Fox has been living with Parkinson’s Disease since 1991, when he was diagnosed at the age of 29. He kept it secret for eight years as his movie career shot into the stratosphere, after the success of Back to the Future. He developed strategies to hide his symptoms – always having a prop in his left hand to hide his tremors, for instance.

The most powerful parts of this superb documentary by Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth, It Might Get Loud) are the direct-to-camera interviews with Fox. These are framed in mid-close-up, with Fox looking directly into the lens – a technique popularised 20 years ago by Errol Morris in The Fog of War. Thus, Fox is talking directly to us, even if we hear the questions from the director.

Fox with his wife Tracy Pollan and children Michael and Esme Fox in Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie.

Fox’s speech in these interviews varies from clear to varying degrees of muddiness. His movements vary the same way, and we soon realise the degree is controlled by his medication. When he needs more dopamine, he stops the questions till the pills go down – but he doesn’t ask Guggenheim to stop the camera. There is little he won’t show or talk about, it seems, and there is a powerful beauty in that. He has come from full concealment to full disclosure. His charitable foundation has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for Parkinson’s research.

Guggenheim uses lots of clips from Fox’s films and TV work. The lines he spoke then have now become relevant to his illness, so these clips bring an unbearable irony. This young man, who was so full of energy and talent and hope as an actor, has become like a grizzled prize-fighter. His face is still handsome but worn, his hands are bandaged from falls and surgery, other bones break often but still, he keeps getting back up, as if to say: is that all you got?

He rejects pity. “It’s never going to get to me … I’m not pathetic… I’m a tough sonofabitch. I’m like a cockroach, I’ve been through a lot of stuff …”

It’s hard to disagree. Movies about illness are so often vehicles for easy sentiment: isn’t he or she brave, or thank god I am not like that. This one is funny, full of sharp insight and unusually frank language. It’s also doggedly unsentimental. Fox’s youthful performances had a certain obviousness, that came from his success in TV situation comedy. His humour often concealed how fearless and driven he was. Now we know.

Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie streams on Apple TV+ from May 12.

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