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PBS' 'My Father, My Brother, and Me' takes journalist
on a personal journey

A son's painful journey

February 03, 2009|MARY McNAMARA | TELEVISION CRITIC

There is an unusual gentleness to "My Father, My Brother, and Me" that is both admirable and frustrating.

In this age of hype and hysteria, any effort to tell a personal story with calm detachment is rather remarkable. But in exploring Parkinson's disease, "Frontline" correspondent Dave Iverson adopts a tone that is at war with its subject. Parkinson's is neither calm nor detached, and in the end it still always wins, no matter how reasonable one attempts to be.

This is something Iverson knows all too well. His father had it as does one of his brothers. When Iverson received his own diagnosis, he decided, as so many journalists do under similar circumstance, to use his personal experience as an on-ramp to a larger examination.

There is a lot to examine. One million Americans suffer from the degenerative neurological disorder, which, like Alzheimer's, has no cure and few successful treatments. Its cause remains a mystery, though current thinking leans toward a combination of genetics and environment. In the most fascinating portion of the "My Father, My Brother, and Me," Dr. William Langston, working in San Francisco in the 1980s, encountered a patient who seemed to have been struck with instant Parkinson's. His condition was traced to a batch of heroin that had apparently been doctored with a chemical resembling a compound used in pesticides. For a few years, it seemed that Langston was on the verge of cracking the Parkinson's code.

Research continued, but Parkinson's didn't have a real spokesperson until actor Michael J. Fox went public 10 years ago. Since then, Parkinson's has been at the forefront of the larger debate over embryonic cell research, funding for which was famously halted by former President George W. Bush because of what he deemed moral reasons.

Despite having seen the heartbreaking toll the disease takes on the body and mind -- before he died, Iverson's father became incapable of movement or speech -- Iverson reacts to his own diagnosis with admirable serenity. "My Father, My Brother, and Me" examines the emotions that the condition and the issue of stem cell research stir up, but Iverson leaves his opinions out of it. (Columnist and fellow sufferer Michael Kinsley, on the other hand, blames Bush for the fact that when the cure comes, it may be too late for him.)

For those who know little about Parkinson's, "My Father, My Brother, and Me" is certainly an excellent primer, and again we are reminded of the decency and courage of Fox, who not only has dedicated his life to raising money and awareness, but has continued to work as an actor despite the tremors that are the hallmarks of the condition.

As a personal journey, however, it is a portrait of stoicism rather than revelation. In these times of too much information, such dispassionate evaluation is a bit of a relief. But in the end it is a narrative limitation. Parkinson's remains an issue to be discussed rather than a life-altering experience to be shared.

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mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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'Frontline: My Father, My Brother, and Me'

Where: KCET

When: 9 tonight

Rating: TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children; coarse language)

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