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Prescribed Viewing: Alex Gibney’s HBO Doc is as Gripping as the Drugs it Covers

Prescribed Viewing

Prescribed Viewing: Alex Gibney’s HBO Doc is as Gripping as the Drugs it Covers

Alex Gibney’s The Crime of the Century should be prescribed viewing for every doctor, politician and government official in the country, because then and only then will we be sure they see just how the system gets completely corrupted. They’ll also learn how that corruption leads to utter catastrophe.

Then again, these stakeholders quite likely already know all about it. How could they not? The prevalent problems are certainly no secret. Nevertheless, if integral counterparts would watch the doc, and then actually sit down to consider its findings, they might think twice the next time half a million lives are on the line. Heck, it’d pretty much be a milestone if all these so-called stakeholders would think even once before inadvertently permitting the next mass murder.

And the opioid crisis is unquestionably a case of mass murder.

Speaking Truth to Power

This isn’t the first time director Alex Gibney has spoken truth to power. Far from it. In fact, his entire career has been dedicated to pulling the veil from the power hungry entities that pull the wool on the populace. Going Clear unsealed Scientology (and won three Emmys to boot); We Steal Secrets disclosed Wikileaks (and chronicled the consequences of disclosure); and Enron proved the Smartest Guys in the Room sure can scam people out of a whole lotta loot (plus provoke a Best Doc Oscar nomination). Furthermore, his Academy Award-winning Taxi to the Dark Side (which focused on an Afghani taxi driver who was tortured and killed at Bagram Air Force Base) and Citizen K (about Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian billionaire exile Mikhail Khodorkovsky) showed Gibney is just as adept at confronting power as he is at covering it. He seems quite eager to do so too.

That tactic of speaking truth to power generally concerns the oppressed standing up to an oppressor. Ghandi used it against the British in India, and proto Social Justice Warrior Bayard Rustin adopted it from Muhammad and the Quakers and then adapted it for use in America’s Civil Rights fights of the mid-20th Century. The practice, however, can get you imprisoned (Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sakharov). It can also get you killed (MLK, RFK, et al et al).

While elements of that brand of truth-speaking are evident in Gibney’s vast body of work, he really is more akin to perennial gadfly Upton Sinclair and the long line of muckrakers who followed in his fabled footsteps. Like Sinclair, who wrote nearly 100 books, Gibney’s incredibly prolific (he’s directed nearly 50 docs). And like Sinclair, whose Oil! became Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, he knows a worthy story when he sees it. More importantly though, neither Sinclair nor Gibney are afraid of targeting the largest operators in the country (i.e Sinclair and the meatpacking industry in The Jungle; Gibney and the Catholic Church in Mea Maxima Culpa).

Gibney’s not all doom and gloom though. In fact, when the hotshot doc-maker’s not out toppling towers of greed and avarice, he’s profiling some of the most magical music-makers of all time, including Frank Sinatra, Fela Kuti, James Brown and The Eagles. And as obvious nods to his kind of wildside storytelling, Gibney also graciously gave us Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, as well as Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place.

So though it seems Gibney may often get consumed with the right side and the wrong side, he’s also often partial to the bright side. And lucky for us that he is too. Damn lucky.

Prescribed Viewing

As for The Crime of the Century, well, it would be impossible not to include the film in a prescribed viewing list. Heck, it’d be impossible not to create a prescribed viewing list just to include the film. Not for anyone who’s interested in addiction anyway. And not for anyone who’s concerned with how easily addiction can be written off as a mere cost of doing business. Can be and was.

Actually, scratch that. The powers that preyed on people here didn’t claim addiction was a cost of doing opioid business — they claimed there was no risk of opioid addiction in the first place. That wasn’t true of course. Opioids carry intrinsic risk. The drug companies knew it too. So did their long list of counterparts (co-conspirators?), which reads like a who’s who in American healthcare.

As NPR (and countless other sources) have pointed out, the opioid crisis culprit companies include Johnson & Johnson, Mallinckrodt, Endo International, Allergan, Teva, McKesson, Walgreens, Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergen, CVS and Walmart, all of whom followed the lead of Purdue Pharma, the grandaddy scammer of ’em all. It was Purdue who invented OxyContin. And it was Purdue who marketed the painkiller with the ferocity of a junkyard dog.

And all the skill and panache of P.T. Barnum himself. Indeed Purdue’s founding Sackler brothers were perhaps the most clever and adept marketeers since the three ring circus circled the world. They’d been hustling just about as long too. It was the Sacklers who had straight-laced coeds gobbling Valium back in the ’60s (which in turn ushered in the age of the Stepford Wives). And it was they who ushered in the program of paying doctors to tell other doctors just which drugs to prescribe. If the Sacklers couldn’t get doctors, they’d invent some. And if that failed, they’d pay someone from an even higher realm (i.e. the FDA’s Henry Welch, then chief of the Administration’s antibiotics division, who received nearly three hundred thousand dollars in exchange for some surreptitious help).

Between marketing moxy, outright payola and addiction claims to the contrary, Purdue was perfectly poised to exploit OxyContin. And exploit it they did. Bringing in untold billion of dollars. And ending untold numbers of lives. Half-a-million is the number currently being bandied about. Thus far. But that only accounts for documented opioid overdoses. It’d be impossible to clock how many folks died from associated conduct or conditions, let alone the number who simply gave up.

The point is that these companies committed egregious crimes. Crimes that caused people to lose everything, often even their very lives. And so far the most they’ve received has been proverbial slaps on the wrist. And rather gentle slaps at that. Gibney’s no-holds-barred doc isn’t just a look at these cold hard crimes; it’s a call for these crimes to be vigorously prosecuted.

Trial of the Century?

Right now the opioid epidemic’s most egregious characters are fittingly being tried in West Virginia, which was more proportionately impacted than any other state in the country. It was also the most explicitly mocked. Every day we hear more and more evidence of drug executives referring to its residents as Pillbillies and belittling their addictions. In reality the executives should’ve been thanking West Virginians for sacrificing their lives in order to pump up the companies’ bottom lines. After all, Cabell County alone scarfed down 100 million pain pills in just nine years, and they’ve only got 90,000 residents. Surely that’s going above and beyond.

In fact, the entire state was going above and beyond. They must’ve been. How else to explain drug distributors being able to sell ’em 1.1 billion painkillers between 2006 and 2014? And how else to account for the state’s overdose rate rising to the highest in the land? But did that make the drug companies happy? Nope. Not even close. Like every greedy malfeasant in history, they wanted more, more, more. Well, they got it. More billions in their pocket. And more Americans in the ground.

Will the trial mean the culprits now, finally, have to answer for their crimes? Hard to say. So far there have been a few relatively meagre fines. But that’s about it. Naturally even the highest of fines won’t bring back any of those lost lives. Neither will jail times. (Though some comeuppance would at least mitigate things a bit.) The best we can hope for is a world where corporate drug pushing is no longer legal. Not even a little. That standards are put into place and practiced — or else. If Sinclair’s The Jungle can give way to the Pure Food and Drug Act, perhaps The Crime of the Century can spark some sort of Prescription Responsibility Act. Of course doctors, politicians and government officials would first have to see some prescribed viewing.

(Image and Clip Courtesy of HBO/Warner Media)

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