Movement and stillness

May 21, 2023

The documentary follows the story of a prolific activist turned actor who faced Parkinson’s head-on

Movement and stillness


t was one of the great ironies of my life that only when it became virtually impossible for me to keep my body from moving would I find the peace, security and spiritual strength to stand in one place. I couldn’t be still until I could — literally — no longer keep still.”

Imagine you wake up one sunny morning andrealise that there is something wrong with your body. At first, you may dismiss it, brushing the discomfort off as temporary, and attributing it to your antics at the party last night or that brawl you had with Woody Harrelson, the specifics of which you cannot recall because you were intoxicated.

But what if it turns out to be something life-changing?

Imagine, for a moment, that you are the sort of person who has been running all their life. But now, you’ve hit the point where you struggle to even put on a shoe. How would you feel?

This is captured skillfully in STILL: A Michael J Fox Movie, which premiered on Apple TV last week. The documentary is Philip Davis Guggenheim’s latest work. The producer and director is credited with being the creative mind behind critically acclaimed documentaries such as An Inconvenient Truth;Waiting for Superman; and He Named Me Malala. His expertise lies in crafting inspirational stories.STILL continues in this vein.

The intimate and frequently amusing documentary sheds light on the life, work and struggles of Michael J Fox, who underwent a transition from actor to activist after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at the young age of 29.

The diagnosis led the Canadian-American actor to conceal his condition from the world, living in constant fear of being exposed during his recordings and performances. Accepting and coming to terms with this incurable lifelong disease took him to dark places at times.

But with the unwavering support of his loving wife and family, Fox managed to persevere and sustain his characteristic optimism. The activist-turned-actor concluded that he would view his condition as a new beginning.

Michael J Fox was always the small guy in the room, an easy target. He was bullied for being short. His reaction to all this was mostly avoidant; he avoided trouble by ‘running away’ – both literally and figuratively.

Fox’s non-confrontational disposition did not make him a coward, as some would erroneously infer. Instead, the evasive way in which he dealt with heated incidents portrayed his understanding of the parameters within which he had to operate if he were to achieve something.

While watching him speak, one is reminded of the iconic sequence from Forrest Gump where Forrest, Tom Hanks’ character, is told, “Run, Forrest, Run!“

Unlike Gump, Fox never stopped running. He was constantly moving from one place to another. He excelled in his drama club and landed a few leading roles in Hollywood. Accompanied by his no-nonsense father, he made his way to auditions and secured teenage roles in television sitcoms such as Leo and Me during the 1970s.

But it wasn’t until Fox finally landed the role of Alex P Keaton in Family Ties in the early 1980s that his career took off. Initially a supporting player, he soon became the star of the show, captivating audiences with his electric comic timing and ability to deliver even the most subtle jokes with impact.

Imagine, for a moment, that you are the sort of person who has been running all their life. But now, you’ve hit the point where you struggle to even put on a shoe. How would you feel? 

It was during this time that producer Steven Spielberg approached him for Robert Zemeckis’s legendary sci-fi comedy Back to the Future - a film he shot simultaneously with Family Ties, enduring three-and-a-half months of ‘exhaustion and confusion.’

During that period, Fox crossed paths with actress Tracy Pollan, who captured his heart by brutally calling him out in their initial encounter and then became a steadfast presence. She made significant sacrifices in her own career and willingly shared the ‘burden’ that came with being with him.

Pollan became the voice of reason in Fox’s life, providing sanity and support. When asked about what she means to him, he struggles to find words, eventually settling on “clarity.”

While Family Ties and Back to the Future catapulted him into stardom and an extraordinary level of fame, with his face appearing everywhere—from movies and posters to magazines and events—it was Tracy’s unwavering presence by his side that kept him grounded andaware of the right priorities in life.

Ironically, as one watches the documentary, the symptoms of Parkinson’s may create an impression that Fox is never at rest, yet his relationship with his wife and four children seems to have finally granted him the stillness he had long sought.

When he was diagnosed with a disease that is typically associated with older individuals, he was deeply shaken. Being one of the most prominent cases diagnosed at a youngage, he became a widely recognised figure in relation to Parkinson’s. Apart from Fox, legendary boxer and sportsman Muhammad Ali was another famous person affected by this condition.

At first, Fox experienced denial, fearing that if people found out, his life would be irrevocably altered. He meticulously calculated the timing of his medications, always mindful of when their effects would wear off. He sought solace in alcohol and devised strategies to work around his tremors while performing on camera, such as during his successful TV show, Spin City.

It was not until 1998, seven years after his diagnosis, that Fox disclosed his condition to the world through a press conference, followed by appearances on national television where he educated and advocated for Parkinson’s disease.

In 2000, he founded the Michael J Fox Foundation, an organisation dedicated to funding research and advancing improved therapies for individuals with Parkinson’s. Today, it is the world’s largest non-profit funder of Parkinson’s disease research, having contributed over $2 billion to various research projects.

The documentary skillfully employs film clips to enhance re-enactments and the actor’s own narration, effectively illustrating key moments of his story. It incorporates direct-to-camera interviews with Fox; footage from his TV shows and movies; and excerpts from his book, creating a seamless blend that transitions smoothly.

Throughout the film, Fox remains true to himself, offering witty answers and comments that endear him to the viewer. The documentary is sincere to the point that it captures Fox, even as the effects of his medication wear off, and the person who built a career on expressing himself is not able to do so in the moment as he stares blankly at the lens.

In STILL, Fox also shares details from his darker days. A shadow flits across his face when he mentions that he falls and hurts himself quite often. This is also evidenced by his battered eye in one scene. Despite thechallenges, he does not extensively dwell on this.

In a memorable scene, prompted by a direct question by Guggenheim, Fox reveals that he is in constant pain but it is evident that he is determined to make the most of every precious moment he has.

While it may be challenging to find a positive perspective on Parkinson’s disease, watching the documentary and personally witnessing a loved one’s experience with it makes this film deeply resonate with me.

He might have felt ‘four feet tall,’- a quip he once made while accepting an acting award he had won, but with his life and work, Michael J Fox stands taller than many giants of the world.

The writer is a digital communication expert and consultant currently working in the public sector. He is the mastermind behind the digital platforms, Sukhan, Mani’s Cricket Myths and Over The Line

Movement and stillness