'Dr. Feelgood: Dealer or Healer?': Film Review

Dr. Feelgood - still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of Jeff Bierman
This provocative documentary deals with an issue that's only become more urgent in recent years.

Eve Marson's documentary examines the case of Dr. William Hurwitz, a Virginia physician who served nearly five years in prison for overprescribing pain medications.

Remember Dr. Max Jacobson, who prescribed powerful amphetamines to such celebrity clients as President John F. Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and Truman Capote, among many others, before having his license revoked in 1975? He was nicknamed “Dr. Feelgood,” a term that has become such a part of our lexicon that Eve Marson’s documentary Dr. Feelgood: Dealer or Healer? isn’t about Jacobson at all. It’s about the more recent case of Dr. William Hurwitz, a Virginia physician who served nearly five years in prison for drug trafficking after prescribing countless thousands of powerful opiate painkillers to his devoted patients. Unlike the courts, however, the filmmaker refuses to take a clear position on the case — hence the enticing question mark in the title.

Marson presents both sides of the story via interviews with several of Hurwitz’s former patients who lavishly praise him; medical, legal and law enforcement experts who describe his behavior as unethical and illegal; and Hurwitz himself, who insists that he’s “led a moral life and done good in the world.”

The topic is complicated by the fact that there is no reliable test for pain, meaning that doctors essentially have to rely on their patients’ word. For thousands of years, the most effective treatment has come from the poppy plant, bringing us such drugs as morphine, codeine and, more insidiously, heroin. Until opioids were made illegal in 1914, Bayer actually marketed heroin, along with aspirin, in the early 1900s.

The film relates how Hurwitz’s medical practice blossomed thanks to his eagerness to prescribe increasingly large doses of opioids to desperate patients suffering from chronic pain. Several of them passionately defend him in interviews, and an excerpt from a “suicide video” shows a former patient despondent after Hurwitz’s license was revoked.

Accused by the authorities of drug trafficking, Hurwitz was convicted in 2004 of over 50 counts of narcotic distribution and handed a 25-year prison sentence. He was also fined $2 million and had all his assets seized. The conviction was later overturned on appeal, and he ultimately served four years and nine months, as well as having his license permanently revoked.

Along the way, he became a figure alternately celebrated as a godsend to chronic pain sufferers and reviled as a common drug dealer. Before his lost his license, he was the subject of a 60 Minutes segment that resulted in his practice expanding dramatically as new patients from all over the country sought his treatment.

Although the film admirably refrains from pronouncing judgment, its deliberate ambiguity sometimes proves frustrating, and a lengthy comparison of Hurwitz to the title character in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short story Gimpel the Fool feels strained.

Still, the documentary raises important and substantial questions about an issue that has only become increasingly relevant in recent years. It wasn’t until 2016 that the U.S. government finally delivered guidelines on prescribing painkillers, even as the death toll from overdoses keeps rising, claiming such celebrities as Heath Ledger and Prince.

Production: Bungalow Pictures in association with Diamond Docs
Distributor: Gravitas Ventures
Director: Eve Marson
Screenwriters: David Boodell, Sara Goldblatt, Eve Marson, Mark Monroe
Producers: Sara Goldblatt, Eve Marson
Executive producers: Alison Block, Timothy Poore
Director of photography: Jeff Bierman
Editors: Adam Bolt, Michael X. Flores, Andrew McAllister, Avner Shiloah
Composer: Jacob Yoffee
Not rated, 84 minutes