Working in the Michael Moore/Morgan Spurlock vein, director Chris Bell makes himself a central character in his documentaries. But instead of feeling like an audience-grabbing act of faux humility, the device has a genuinely searching effect — and, in the case of his brisk and vital new film, makes for an unexpected dramatic arc.
With 2008’s Bigger Stronger Faster, Bell explored a particular strain of American exceptionalism through his and his brothers’ steroid use. Turning to the urgent national problems of overmedication and addiction in Prescription Thugs, he begins again with his family and expands the discussion to take on Big Pharma (which, unsurprisingly, chose not to participate). Though the movie, a world-premiere selection at Tribeca, isn’t consistently eye-opening and has its repetitive stretches, its overall mix is engaging and heartfelt, an accessible combo that could click with a wide viewership.
Growing up in a squeaky-clean “all-American family” in Poughkeepsie, NY, Bell and his two brothers eschewed drugs in favor of wholesome sports. The cruel paradox was that wrestling and powerlifting led them to prescription drugs, and, as for millions of people, what started as pain relief turned into a habit. Spurring Bell’s quest for answers is the uphill struggle of his brother Mike “Mad Dog” Bell, whose role in the WWE was that of designated loser, in more ways than one.
Bell and his family offer frank commentary, his father especially clear-eyed. The conversation widens with the forthright testimony of wrestling vets Ryan Sakoda (who shares a tearful confession), Matt “Horshu” Wiese (whose habit climbed to 90 pills a day) and Chris Leben (whose credo was “nothing in moderation”). To illustrate the broad reach of an intractable problem, Bell recalls famous Rx casualties — Heath Ledger, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston — and elicits personal testimony from everyday folk, among them a Minnesota mom who took to popping her daughter’s Adderall.
The film stalls as the commentary grows redundant. But its energy kicks in again as Bell and screenwriter Josh Alexander begin to connect the dots between public policy/corporate agendas and a health crisis of staggering proportions. Looking back, there’s an incisive jab at the divide between Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” and her husband’s deregulation initiatives, which ushered in the age of “Ask your doctor” TV ads pushing pills of every sort — still something of a perverse joke for anyone who can remember television without them.
Thugs offers a damning summary of the FDA approval process as a closed loop in which one hand washes the other and crucial data can remain hidden. With its reference to ghost-written “expert” articles, the film touches upon territory covered in depth in the recent documentary Merchants of Doubt. And there are startling statistics: Someone dies from an accidental overdose every 19 minutes; oxycodone revenue plunged 80% after its crushable — i.e., easily abusable — form was discontinued.
Bell and Alexander have compiled an introduction to a huge subject, hitting on many of its facets without the time to delve deeply. But they make their points about the toxicity of drugs, the moneymaking machinery that drives their overuse, and the relative safety of alternative options like homeopathy. Psychiatrist David Healy, a pharma gadfly, weighs in, as does reformed Big Pharma sales repGwen Olsen, full of an insider’s fury. Richard Taite, director of the Cliffside Malibu rehab facility, takes a more distanced stance. Like Bell, but less naïve, he’s interested in the quick-fix culture of addiction.
The film’s most extraordinary moment occurs when Congressman Ted Lieu, at the time of filming a member of the California State Senate, is visibly shocked when Bell mentions the availability of oxy online. That the revelation leads to action on the senator’s part is amazing enough; that it leads to a confession by the filmmaker is especially bracing, and brings the documentary full circle in terms of the personal toll.
The movie’s music score can be intrusive, especially in the early going, and Bell’s voiceover takes some getting used to before the emotional hook of his story takes hold. The polished package is laced with playful touches, some more helpful than others: animation, bright graphics and archival material like the delightful oddity of an anti-quackery PSA featuring Raymond Massey of Dr. Kildare fame.
At its most trenchant, Thugs suggests that the very definition of quackery needs to be reexamined, along with the supposed legitimacy of legal drugs, licensed physicians and pharmaceutical manufacturers. In its wide-ranging examination, the film excels at placing demonized street drugs and medically dispensed pharmaceuticals on a continuum. Coming at the subject from a variety of angles, Bell and his interviewees make clear that Adderall, Ritalin and OxyContin are variations on meth and heroin — neatly packaged and never targeted by the so-called war on drugs.
Production companies: The Blaze Documentary Films, Wild West Prods., Go Go Luckey Entertainment, Naked Edge Films
With: Chris Bell, Mike “Mad Dog” Bell, Mark Bell, Rosemary Bell, Mike Bell, Chris Leben, Ryan Sakoda, Matt “Horshu” Wiese, Richard Taite, Ted Lieu, Gwen Olsen, David Healy
Director: Chris Bell
Screenwriter: Josh Alexander
Producers: Daniel J. Chalfen, Christopher Bell, Greg G.B. Young
Executive producers: Peter Billingsley, Joel Cheatwood, Vince Vaughn
Director of photography: G.B. Young
Editor: G.B. Young
Composer: Joel Goodman
No rating, 86 minutes