Movie Review:
Awakenings (1990)

Awakenings (1990)

TITLE: Awakenings

RELEASE DATE: May 18, 1990




Awakenings is a 1990 drama based on the true story of a neurologist's exploration and discovery in treating catatonic patients who survived the 1917-1928 epidemic of encephalitis lethargica. Dr. Malcolm Sayer (played by Robin Williams) starts working at a Bronx hospital and becomes fascinated by the condition of his comatose patients. 

His dedication and thoroughness lead to an innovative treatment using a drug designed for another purpose. The doctor's medical trials offer a glimmer of hope but also provoke significant ethical and practical questions.


This movie is set in 1969, when the US economy was in recession and the medical system was not only underfunded, but as a result was completely understaffed. Awakenings does not hold back showing the poor working conditions, including lack of equipment, lack of resources, and even lack of space. The doctors who do work there are indifferent and full of skepticism. They don’t want change. They just want to get through the day. They do not share Dr. Sayer’s curiosity or care. They are beaten down and jaded, tired of pressure, criticism, and bureaucracy.

Dr. Sayer’s approach to patients highlights his compassion and caring. He listens to them, encourages them, and helps them find ways to express themselves and enjoy life. He advocates for them. This is not to ignore the fact he’s also pushing boundaries too far and basically using them as an experiment. I’m not saying he’s perfect. ;) But he still treats them with more respect than most of his colleagues. His attitude and care make a difference, regardless of how the story ends. We also see how his interactions with them enriched his own life.

We get a full view of how the patients are seen as hopeless and incurable. Society sees them as possibly dangerous, locking them up and forgetting about them altogether.  As the film goes on, we see some of the patients’ dreams, hopes, memories, feelings, desires, past lives, etc. We get to see them as more human. But the difficulty of showing that to the outside world and allowing patients the space they would need to adjust to it after decades of isolation is just unattainable, as the film shows.  No matter how much we see the stereotypes and prejudices and how the patients are not living up to them, the outside world of the film does not. We see the lack of social support and integration for anyone with mental illness.


This movie far surpassed my expectations. I was not prepared for how accurately the portrayed working in a psychiatric ward and I was pleasantly surprised at the care they gave to getting things correct.

I also loved that this movie sidestepped the biggest mistake I thought Good Morning Vietnam made, as they based Robin’s character on Dr. Sacks without making him BE Dr. Sacks. Dr. Sayer was able to be his own thing, tell the story, and allow for embellishment.  


It’s hard to find anything I truly disliked about this film. I guess I would pick that we glorify running experiments on patients because it was “for good reasons” and that we also have no discussion about how he just changes the doses mid-film. But that would’ve been a downer. ;)


My absolute favorite part is one that gets cut from a lot of screenings of this film. When the nurse runs in and says, “It’s a fucking miracle!” I can’t imagine cutting this line. The impact the f-bomb has here is 100% real.

Outside of that, the performances of the cast were stunning.


Robin was quoted as saying this was his favorite role and called it “A gift.” The more I dove into the filming of it, and how they were interacting with real patients and staff, the more I can see why he loved this role so much.

I have worked in State Hospitals in three different states and this movie triggered so many memories for me. Patients I’d forgotten about over time, co-workers who were willing to protect one another, the camaraderie and the absolute trust in others I haven’t experienced at other jobs. There’s a lot that’s totally right with this movie.