July 5, 2022

Something the Lord Made (2004)
Grade: 72/100

Director: Joseph Sargent
Stars: Mos Def, Alan Rickman, Gabrielle Union

What it's about. A made-for-cable biopic about Vivien Thomas (1910-1985), a heart surgery pioneer who spent decades in medical labs at Vanderbilt and Johns Hopkins yet never had a formal education beyond his high school degree.

The film begins with unemployed young adult Thomas getting a job as a janitor in a Vanderbilt University laboratory for ambitious and mercurial doctor Alfred Blalock (Alan Rickman). Blalock soon discovers the formally untrained Thomas' unexpected brilliance as a lab assistant, and he is soon invaluable to Blalock's research. Thomas' opportunity to become a doctor is dashed when his life savings from work as a carpenter vanishes in a Great Depression bank failure.

After career successes, Dr. Blalock lands a plum research position at his alma mater Johns Hopkins. He brings Thomas with him, though Baltimore was an even more racist city than Nashville, Tennessee. But Thomas' wife, here played by the ever-gorgeous Gabrielle Union, proves loyal.

As the years pass, Thomas remains underpaid and underappreciated while greatly helping Blalock's rise to international medical fame for his heart surgeries saving "blue babies" from the slow torture of asphyxia and premature death. But by the early 1960s, Thomas finally comes into his own as he attains the prestigious position of lab director at Johns Hopkins.

How others will see it. The politically correct HBO movie was additionally moving and heartwarming. It was showering with awards. At the Primetime Emmys, it won in three categories and was nominated in six others. It took home the big prize, Outstanding Made for Television Movie, though no doubt Mos Def and Alan Rickman would have preferred to win Outstanding Lead Actor. Both were nominated; perhaps if only one was, he would have won.

Today at imdb.com, Something the Lord Made has 13K user votes, a big total for a television movie. The user ratings are extremely high, 8.2 among men and a whopping 8.6 among women. The user reviews gush with praise: "an astonishing achievement"; "riveting and inspirational"; "what a beautiful film."

The only naysayer is from someone who calls it "more liberal propaganda", and correctly notes that it was actually female cardiologist Dr. Taussig, the "blue baby" specialist, who first had the idea of what became known as the Blalock-Thomas-Taussig shunt.

How I felt about it. The accomplishments of Alfred Blalock and Vivien Thomas were little known prior to an article by Katie McCabe in the Washingtonian magazine. The article was read by dentist Dr. Irving Sorkin, who was inspired to push for a movie about the two heart surgeon pioneers. Although his daughter, Arleen Sorkin, was a Hollywood insider, it took 15 years of effort before the film was made. At imdb.com, Dr. Sorkin has exactly one film credit, as a producer for the present HBO movie.

But its advent was preceded by "Partners of the Heart", an episode of the PBS documentary series "American Experience." That episode premiered on February 10, 2003, and the television premiere of Something the Lord Made was 15 months later, on May 30, 2004.

After one has seen both the episode and the movie, it is obvious that that many scenes from the latter were scripted from events described in the former.

But both, in turn, are based on Thomas' posthumous autobiography: Pioneering Research in Surgical Shock and Cardiovascular Surgery: Vivien Thomas and his Work with Alfred Blalock was published in 1985. Blalock also wrote an autobiography, Personal Reflections. It was published the year of his death, similar to Thomas' tome. But nobody seems to have read a copy, as it lacks the overcoming prejudice and adversity theme present in the Thomas life story. Or maybe Thomas was just a better writer, just as he was likely the better heart surgeon, even though he was never able to operate on a living person.

Some elements from the PBS documentary did not make it into the HBO movie. Blalock was a playboy in his Vanderbilt undergraduate years, something that belies HBO's tall tale of his inspirational childhood brush with death from tuberculosis. Instead, Blalock was born into one of the wealthiest families in his county. His ancestors owned plantations and slaves prior to the Civil War. This creates even greater contrast between white, privileged, and celebrated Dr. Blalock and his chronically underpaid and unrecognized black lab assistant Thomas, who eventually rose to become director of laboratories at Johns Hopkins, helping train doctors for surgery. Thomas was also an inventor. His carpentry skills no doubt came in handy when helping devise the tiny surgical tools needed to perform heart surgery on babies.

HBO implies that Blalock left Johns Hopkins for a teaching gig at Columbia. This does not appear to have happened. The fictional scene was no doubt intended to show that by then, Thomas had advanced beyond the role of Blalock's assistant.

HBO also conceals the truth about luckless Eileen Saxon, the first human subject of the "blue baby" heart bypass surgery. Saxon lived only a few additional months; she regressed, had a second operation, and died a few days later. This sad outcome would disappoint the HBO audience, so we are to believe her pioneering first operation was an unqualified success. The significance of Blalock and Thomas' research on the treatment of shock seems minimized. The PBS documentary claims "millions" of lives were saved, during World War II alone. It appears that the common sense conclusions of Blalock's research on shock is less compelling than the drama associated with pioneering heart surgery on babies.

Also, Dr. Blalock never made the cover of Life Magazine. Nevertheless, despite such missteps, the HBO movie shines with quality. It certainly helps that it has a fine cast. Alan Rickman, Gabrielle Union, Kyra Sedgwick, and Mary Stuart Masterson are household names. The actor playing the lead, Mos Def (now known as Yaslin Bey), is better known as a hip-hop artist, but that doesn't mean he can't act. In fact, his understated performance is worthy of the many festival award nominations that he received.

The film's director, Joseph Sargent, was 79 years old when Something the Lord Made was first broadcast. Among cinemaphiles, he is best known for the fine crime drama The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), though another one of his films, Jaws: The Revenge, probably commands more television viewings. Sargent has a great many television film credits as director, mostly obscure. But the writers, Peter Silverman and Robert Caswell, have less noteworthy careers.

If we turn to the executive producers, we find even less of interest. Robert W. Cort has many producer film credits, littered with mediocre titles such as The Seventh Sign (1988), Revenge of the Nerds II, Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey, Kazaam, and so forth. It appears we will never know who, beyond the film's two leads, are most responsible for this superior made-for-cable movie.