'Drug$': Film Review

Being old news doesn't make it less infuriating.
12/7/2018

J.K. Simmons narrates Jonathan Marshall Thompson's look at Big Pharma's grip on America.

Far from the first movie (or TV news segment, or magazine article) to gather Big Pharma's biggest sins up in one get-out-the-pitchforks exposé, Jonathan Marshall Thompson's Drug$ is no less enraging for its story's familiarity. It offers some bits of fact and argument that may have gone underexposed, and it is more stylish than some earlier journalistic outings. But its potential to make change is hindered, as the film itself notes near its conclusion, by the fact that the already-stoked fear and rage of American citizens is neutered by those we've elected to make laws — many of whom have been taking checks from this deep-pocketed industry for years.

Over a soundtrack that is menacing from the start, J.K. Simmons reads a narration that might be called heavy-handed, if not for the fact that the soaring price of prescription drugs really does threaten the lives of both America's citizenry and its economy.

After the usual voice-of-reason talking head — in this case, Harvard professor Jerry Avorn, who says it's "ludicrous to think" America can keep spending such a high share of its GDP on drugs without a catastrophe — the film gets right to a well-publicized controversy, the price of the EpiPen. We see Heather Bresch, CEO of EpiPen maker Mylan, bragging about how many of the devices the company gives away for free. She's less forthcoming about the reported conditions of that generosity: Schools and institutions who get free EpiPens must promise they won't look for cheaper providers than Mylan when the free ones run out.

As we expect, the doc contrasts Bresch's reported compensation of $19 million (in 2015) with the financial burden a $600 EpiPen puts on a mother whose two kids have extreme food allergies. But Thompson also finds a researcher to explain how, thanks to buybacks that manipulate stock prices, drug execs can actually make vastly more than the already obscene salaries reported in the press.

As for the old line that drug companies have to charge a lot to pay for all that research and development, Avorn and others say not so fast. Most of the big companies, they note, acquire inventions from others instead of developing them on their own. And often, much of the research that led to a breakthrough drug was already paid for by American taxpayers.

Little history lessons help explain how the U.S. came to pay so much more than other countries for medications. We're one of only two nations that allow drug makers to advertise directly to consumers (thanks to the Clinton administration's deregulation), leading patients to beg doctors for name-brand products; unlike all other developed countries, our laws don't allow the government to negotiate lower prices for drugs.

The film discusses Pharma's exploitation of patent-law loopholes and cases of likely collusion between companies whose prices just happen to rise in lockstep with those of their competitors. And it finds a few heroes in Congress — Bernie Sanders and Maryland's Elijah Cummings — willing to call their peers out for talking loud and doing next to nothing about corporate price-gouging.

Yes, of course: Viewers will eventually have to look at the tremendously fist-worthy smirk of a certain infamous "pharma bro." But until we can report that this guy is suffering from an agonizing disease whose treatment he can't afford, let's not say his name out loud.

Things get so dire toward the end that we have to listen to another scandal-maker, convicted felon Jack Abramoff, wringing his hands about the "bribes" that keep lawmakers doing drug makers' bidding. Well, he should know, but it's not clear he should get any credit for pointing it out. After this distasteful appearance, the doc moves briefly into rally-the-troops mode, hoping that viewers will finally make their voices loud enough to drown out Big Pharma's endless campaign contributions. That's a thing worth hoping for, to be sure, but Drug$ seems more likely to keep the outrage simmering than to start the revolution.

Director: Jonathan Marshall Thompson
Screenwriter: Norm Leonard
Producers: Andy Carney, Hilary Smith, Jonathan Marshall Thompson
Editor: Andy Carney
Composer: Asaf Sagiv

79 minutes