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Category:    Home > Reviews > Documentary > Health > TV > A Paralyzing Fear - The Story Of Polio In America

A Paralyzing Fear – The Story Of Polio In America


Picture: C+     Sound: B-     Extras: B-     Documentary: B+



How ugly was Polio?  It took decades and two doctors with two different approaches to finally defeat it.  Jonas Salk used a killed virus vaccine, while Albert Sabin used a living one.  Either way, they finally freed the world of the curse, though poverty and ignorance has brought it back in third-world countries and the idea that it is gone will not help resurgence.  Writer/director Nina Gilden Seavey (whose Ballad Of Bering Strait is reviewed elsewhere on this site) more than outdoes herself with A Paralyzing Fear – The Story Of Polio In America (1997) and its painstaking recreation of the crisis that would keep coming back to claim more victims is intense.


At first, the disease was thought to only attack children, but that soon turned out not to be the case.  A bacterium was originally thought to be the culprit, but the idea of a virus succeeded it as the cause and the solution was slowly on its way.  This is a stunning reminder of how recent a killer it was and how terrifying it was.  It also reminds us how ignorance makes a crisis situation worse, history repeating itself with AIDS and general prejudice.  Through interviews of the victims of the scourge, stock footage, promos, posters and narration by Olympia Dukakis, a fine record everyone should see is still here, now finally out on DVD.


The full frame 1.33 X 1 image looks good for its recent NTSC analog origins.  The master used is clean and terrific for DVD.  The Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo has some Pro Logic surround information, though the vintage audio is obviously monophonic.  It is a compelling combination for a great show.  Extras include a text history of Polio, three mini-documentaries (as featurettes is not scientific enough?), stills section, text biographies of the two filmmakers, an extended trailer for this program, three trailers for other First Run programs, and text on the Documentary Center at The George Washington University.  I like how the program continues to point out how the U.S. Government did not help or intervene throughout this time, though Polio victim Franklin Delano Roosevelt did bring a new awareness and pushed for efforts while he was in office to bring the problem to the forefront.  What Salk, then Sabin did remains one of American medicine’s finest moments and a triumph in the 20th Century that is not often remembered enough.   That needs to change.



-   Nicholas Sheffo


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