American Experience: The Polio Crusade

Thomas Britt

An insidious virus, a race for a vaccine, human experimentation -- the subgenre this documentary brings to mind is the increasingly popular bio-thriller.

American Experience

Distributor: PBS
Cast: Larry Becker, Kathryn Black
MPAA rating: N/A
Network: PBS
US Release Date: 2009-04-07

Note to readers: American Experience: The Polio Crusade can be purchased from the PBS Shop on 10 March.

American Experience: The Polio Crusade, written, produced and directed by Sarah Colt, is in keeping with the lauded series' reputation as a source for informative history lessons. Mixing archival footage with talking head interviews and eloquent narration, this is a mostly worthwhile entry that brings to life America's decades-long battle with the viral disease.

The documentary anchors its historical examination in Wytheville, Virginia, which was "the site of the most severe polio epidemic in the United States per capita of the population", according to Dr. Henry D. Holland. The film adroitly uses archival footage of youth, summertime and swimming to introduce not only the idyllic small town, but to set up that carefree environment as the very breeding ground for the disease.

As Wytheville residents Anne B. Crockett-Stark, Eleanor Sage, Betty Brown, and Eugene Warren discuss the onset of the epidemic, the stock footage takes on a more dangerous set of associations and eventually becomes the stuff of impending panic: shuttered businesses, two overworked ambulances and a rapidly rising polio case count. Warren describes the sense of near-hopelessness that gripped the town, powerless in the presence of an invisible enemy.

The scope of the documentary expands beyond Wytheville to include the various political and cultural developments that surrounded the polio epidemic. Particularly interesting is the telling of Basil O'Connor's commitment to bring awareness and aid to the battle against polio through the formation of the March of Dimes.

While the documentary offers heartbreaking footage of the effects of the disease, it also suggests that extreme cases were rare. As a result, the March of Dimes is presented here as a triumph of public relations as much as it is a worthy cause. Newsreel footage and short films with Hollywood celebrities joining the cause support the idea that Americans were brought on board through successful advertising rather than compassion alone.

Regardless of how the awareness was created, polio was one of the most feared diseases in America, and the other major story thread here involves the confrontation of that fear through the race for a vaccine. The story of Dr. Jonas Salk is well known, but the film sets up his rivalry with Albert Sabin as a kind of high-stakes game between two very confident men. This is an entertaining premise that could form its own feature film because of the dramatic action inherent in the rivalry.

One aspect of the race for a vaccine that the documentary briefly addresses is the ethical quandary raised by Salk's July 1952 human tests on sick children in institutions. As David Oshinsky says in the piece, informed consent as we know it today did not exist at the time. However, the documentary is strangely uninterested in investigating too deeply the lack of attention to ethics in that human research. Oshinsky's brief reference seems obligatory as the piece quickly moves on to the successes of the tests and subsequent trials.

As a result of these elements -- an insidious virus, a race for a vaccine, human experimentation -- the subgenre the film documentary brings to mind is the increasingly popular bio-thriller. Several moments in, the film relies on the same narrative elements as recent blockbuster I Am Legend and would-be blockbusters The Happening and Blindness.

Audiences for those films are expected to suspend disbelief and connect their own fears to the imaginary scenarios playing out on the screen. But the natural advantage of non-fiction storytelling of this sort is that it doesn't need to rely so much on the imagination of disaster as the remembrance of disaster. For this reason the living history represented by the interviewees affected by polio is the strongest material in the film.

Although the archival footage, interviews and narration are effective in delivering the history, all too often they fail to vividly bring it to life. The high points of the documentary are Kathryn Black's story of her mother's losing struggle with polio and Larry Becker's courageous victory over the disease. With both of these interviews, the film combines valuable access to living history with active, present tense formal devices that revitalize the memories.

Interview material combines with reenactment footage reminiscent of the John Toll-lensed flashback scenes in The Thin Red Line to create an intensity of effect that is not present anywhere else in the film. In the wake of such strong moments, the more traditional American Experience narrative and visual techniques seem safe by comparison.

Overall, American Experience: The Polio Crusade continues the series' tradition of showing and telling a chapter of history in a tightly organized fashion that respects the audience's intelligence and inquisitiveness. However its most successful moments address an additional, creative portion of the consumer's mind. By briefly taking liberties with the perceived formula, Colt's film proves that the expression of history benefits from complex formal evolutions.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.