Why are we surprised that Robert De Niro is promoting an anti-vaccine movie? As an actor he deals in fantasy.

Good vs evil road sign

The most surprising thing about Robert De Niro’s support for screening an anti-vaccine movie at his TriBeCa Film Festival is that anyone is surprised.

According to BuzzFeed:

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]As a narrative device, the anti-vaccine conspiracy is brilliant. [/pullquote]

Organizers for the upcoming 2016 Tribeca Film Festival have come under fire for their decision to screen a documentary from controversial anti-vaccine activist Andrew Wakefield.

According to a press release about the festival’s roster, the film, Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe, “confirm[s] what millions of devastated parents and ‘discredited’ doctors have long-suspected – vaccines do cause autism.”

Not surprisingly, scientists, physicians and public health authorities have taken to social media to condemn both the Festival and founder Robert De Niro for the decision to include Wakefield’s movie.

De Niro responded today:

Grace and I have a child with autism and we believe it is critical that all of the issues surrounding the causes of autism be openly discussed and examined. In the 15 years since the Tribeca Film Festival was founded, I have never asked for a film to be screened or gotten involved in the programming. However this is very personal to me and my family and I want there to be a discussion, which is why we will be screening Vaxxed. I am not personally endorsing the film, nor am I anti-vaccination; I am only providing the opportunity for a conversation around the issue.”

He’s not anti-vaccination, just providing an opportunity for conversation. Sure.

De Niro is an actor and actors and actresses have been the heart and soul of the anti-vax movement. Why actors? Because actors deal in fantasy and the anti-vax movement is nothing if not fantasy.

The anti-vaccine movement has been around since vaccines were first used to save lives more than two hundred years ago. The movement has a perfect record: it has been wrong 100% of the time! Not a single claim by the anti-vax movement has ever been shown to be correct.

Anti-vax advocacy, like most of alternative health, is a product of fear: fear of the unknown and fear of losing control. Autism invokes both fears on the part of parents: fear that something has happened to your child and you don’t know why and fear that you might in some way be responsible.

But anti-vax advocacy didn’t come into its own until it was adopted by actress Jenny McCarthy. As an actress, she recognized both the value of fear and the importance of a narrative arc. Taking advantage of the fact that modern medicine has not fully elucidated the cause of autism (although it appears to be genetic), McCarthy created a narrative arc to describe what was happening to her own child.

As a narrative device, anti-vax is brilliant.

1.Fear stalks the land.

Parents are desperate to avoid what many see as the tragedy of severe autism, which leads a previously normally appearing child to lose language, withdraw into him or herself, engage in destructive and self-destructive failures, and end up incapable of independent adulthood.

2. The search is on for the perpetrator.

No one, not even the finest scientific minds, can explain why some children suddenly develop autism.

3. A clue is found.

McCarthy, like others before her, notice that autism typically begins to make itself manifest at about 18 months of age, COINCIDENTALLY at the same time that the MMR (mumps, measles, rubella) vaccine is given.

4. A brave soul finds the cause.

Hazarding the condemnation of those with actual education in immunology, medicine and public health, our heroine makes the connection between vaccines and autism. Even better, she is willing to speak truth to power to get the message out to other frightened parents.

5. A handsome hero gallops in on a white horse!

Andrew Wakefied, a former physician and researcher, produces a scientific article that confirms the heroine’s intuition, putting the imprimatur of science on a mother’s love.

6. The culprit is identified and vilified.

It has been Big Pharma all along, evil, grasping and willing to harm ALL THE CHILDREN IN THE WORLD, to increase profits. What a sordid enterprise! A multinational conglomerate has conspired to fool innocent parents into giving their children AN INJECTION they claim will keep children healthy but actually makes children sick.

7. The hero and heroine ride off into the sunset, having vanquished the forces of evil.

It would make a great movie wouldn’t it?

But it’s not a movie; it’s real life and real life does not follow a narrative arc. It has to be massaged into a narrative arc for purposes of the film and often facts are ignored, omitted and changed to fit the preferred storyline.

The history of medicine is a history of diseases that are poorly understood but eventually yield to science. Until then the disease spawns bizarre theories (like demonic possession for epilepsy), quack cures, fear, and conspiracy theories.

The claim that the MMR causes autism is one of those conspiracy theories that has no basis in fact. Andrew Wakefield was shown to have fabricated his research results with the purported aim of profiting from an alternative vaccination that he was developing. He NEVER found evidence that the MMR causes autism; he made it up to induce panic and he succeeded beyond his wildest expectation.

I haven’t seen the movie, but I’d be willing to bet that it follows the narrative arc described above, and that it also ignores and omits facts, substituting lies in their place.

I cannot blame De Niro. Desperate diseases lead to desperate parents and desperate desires for explanations and for absolution. If vaccines cause autism, De Niro and his wife did not transmit it to their child. Who wouldn’t want to believe that.

Unfortunately, De Niro has dealt in fantasy for so long that he can no longer see that real life does not conveniently follow the dramatic arc of movies. Real life is filled with bad things that happen to good people for no reason.

Human beings try to make sense of bad things and make movies with obvious heroes and villains to do so. But those movies are fantasy and Andrew Wakefield’s film is not exception. The only surprising thing about an actor who prefers fantasy to reality is that anyone else is surprised.