'Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe': Film Review

Vaxxed From Cover-up to Catastrophe
Absorbing but unpersuasive.
4/1/2016

Andrew Wakefield's controversial documentary, receiving a hurried theatrical release after being pulled from the Tribeca Film Festival, attempts to prove the link between the MMR vaccine and autism.

It turns out that getting bumped from the Tribeca Film Festival is the best thing that could have happened to Andrew Wakefield's documentary alleging a link between vaccines and autism.

Had it been given its one or two showings at the festival, Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe might have received a tiny theatrical release and then been relegated to the obscurity accorded to so many similar advocacy documentaries. But when Robert De Niro first defended its inclusion in the festival, and then reversed himself a day later after a firestorm of controversy, the film received far more attention than it would have otherwise received. It's not exactly coincidental that a theatrical opening was hurriedly scheduled for a mere four days later.

The people behind the doc have taken pains to say that it isn't "anti-vaccine," and technically they're right, in the way that Donald Trump sometimes is. It attempts to prove a link between one vaccine in particular, the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella), and the dramatic rise in autism cases in recent years. The film also attempts to make the case that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) committed fraud and misrepresented its scientific findings, using its whistleblower Dr. William Thompson as a key witness.

Except that Thompson doesn't actually appear in the film. Rather, his voice is included via excerpts of phone calls, recorded without his knowledge, between him and Dr. Brian Hooker, a biologist and anti-vaccination activist whose son suffers from autism. We thus hear Thompson claiming that the CDC's studies were falsified and apologizing for not doing more to expose the fraud.

Vaxxed was directed by Andrew Wakefield, and I would say that he shouldn't give up his day job except that he no longer has one. He's the British gastroenterologist who was one of the dozen authors of a study about the link between vaccination and autism published in a British medical journal in 1998. The study was retracted in 2010 and has been widely discredited. He's since had his medical license revoked over various ethical and financial improprieties, although not surprisingly you don't hear about that in the film.

Not being an expert in autism or vaccination issues, it's not for me to make judgments about the information presented. On the surface, the doc makes some compelling arguments, although most of its power is emotional rather than informational. A procession of anguished, tearful parents deliver impassioned testimony about how their once normal, beautiful children began to exhibit regressive behavior almost immediately after their MMR vaccinations. Home movie footage of smiling, happy infants is starkly contrasted with later footage of the children, some now in their teens, exhibiting the symptoms of the disease for which scientists have not determined a cause. We also see unsettling PSA television spots, both pro and con about vaccinations, featuring young children parroting the lines they've been fed.

It's all effective, but also purely anecdotal. It's more interesting to learn that drug manufacturers are protected by federal law from customer lawsuits claiming adverse effects from vaccines, and that injury claims are handled by a particular U.S. court that is commonly known as the "Vaccine Court," a term that doesn't exactly inspire confidence.

Still, it's hard to take Vaxxed's arguments seriously, considering that many of them are made by the likes of the disgraced filmmaker, Hooker (not exactly a major figure in the medical world) and Del Bigtree. The last, afforded the most screen time, was formerly a producer of The Doctors, a daytime talk show created by Dr. Phil. Draw your own conclusions.

Distributor: Cinema Libre Studio
Production companies: Autism Media Channel, Del Bigtree Production
Director: Andrew Wakefield
Screenwriters: Andrew Wakefield, Del Bigtree
Producers: Del Bigtree, Polly Tommey, Brian Burrowes
Executive producer: Casey Coates Danson
Directors of photography: Brian Burrowes, Wael Shukha, Tanayia Koonce, Imogen Wakefield, Erik Nanstiel, Mark Roethke, Andrew Debosz, Kelly Gallagher, Jenn Sherry Parry
Editor: Brian Burrowes

Not rated, 91 minutes

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