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Ultra-prolific documentarian Alex Gibney really needs to slow down his output. He may be a machine, but I’m but a man incapable of generating five-to-10 Gibney-specific review ledes per year.
Alternatively, ultra-prolific documentarian Alex Gibney really needs to speed up his output. Like seemingly everybody else these days, Gibney is steadliy finding things to take umbrage at, but even at his outrageous current pace, there’s a real risk of even typically thorough Gibney productions feeling like nourishing-but-reheated leftovers.
Welcome to Gibney’s The Crime of the Century, a four-hour HBO documentary chronicling the deepening morass of the opioid crisis in America. It’s a project of well-earned pique, unfolding with Gibney’s strong sense of cause-and-effect. But this is one of those instances where it’s hard to imagine viewers settling in for four hours of burgeoning irritation without having already learned nearly all of the pertinent facts from a dozen previous books, newspaper exposés, segments on every TV news magazine imaginable and long-term comic treatments from The Daily Show to Full Frontal to Last Week Tonight. The opioid crisis isn’t over, so Gibney isn’t exactly late to the party, but there’s no question that the pizza with the freshest toppings has been gone for a while.
The point that The Crime of the Century makes most clearly — as articulated in the title — is that the opioid crisis in America isn’t a piece of tragic happenstance, a situation that we found ourselves in because of inertia or weakness. It’s a crime and specifically a crime borne of capitalism, where a handful of people running a handful of drug companies put profits over humans and became rich at a level of obscenity that defies comprehension. Those people were able to accumulate those billions by incentivizing individuals and companies below them to prioritize making millions over proper regulation or legislation — and in some cases even prioritized hundreds of thousands of dollars over the ability to look clients or communities in the eye. It’s a sin in which both victims and perpetrators resist ideological lines. The 500,000+ opioid overdose deaths since 2000 have been in red states and blue states, and the politicians pushing or signing toothless laws to protect the fattened drug companies are both Republicans and Democrats.
Gibney traces the problem to the Sackler Family, moguls of Purdue Pharma and benefactors of art galleries. But there’s a deeper dive into how the proliferation of OxyContin and then fentanyl couldn’t have happened without a wholesale redefinition of “pain” and “pain management” — one in which the concerns of people with genuine and chronic ailments were never really a part of any equation, because a drug made exclusively for late-stage cancer patients will never make enough money to be worth developing and marketing.
The problem — and this is not actually a “problem” in general but just a problem for this documentary as a piece of original reporting — is that not only is Gibney following in the footsteps of writers like Patrick Radden Keefe (Empire of Pain) and Barry Meier (Pain Killer) and the investigative team at The Washington Post, but they’re among his featured subjects. As I’ll always say, I find Gibney most interesting when he’s following his own frustrated sense of injustice and least interesting when he’s providing a visual showcase — lots of pretty close-ups of poppy plants and Nomadland-esque snapshots of American decay — for other people’s work. There are original documents and revelations here, but they aren’t always presented in a way that lets you know what’s new and notable about them.
It’s easy for Gibney to know where to point his finger. The condemnation of figures like Purdue Pharma and the Sacklers and John Kapoor and Insys Therapeutics is easy and vicious. But nobody with the last name “Sackler” is going to sit down for an interview with Alex Gibney. On the political front, folks like Senator Christopher Dodd and former Congressman Tom Marino and now-Senator Marsha Blackburn are called out for coddling Purdue and then the affront that is the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act, but they’re not going to appear in a film like this either.
This leaves Gibney with the challenge of figuring out the personal stories he wants to depict in the documentary; the results are interesting, if questionable.
The closest Gibney comes to a clear onscreen villain is Dr. Lynn Webster of Lifetree Pain Clinic, whose smug answers regarding addiction are intercut with the story of a Utah man whose wife overdosed on drugs Webster prescribed. Like most of the figures here, Webster is decidedly mid-level in a conspiracy that goes all the way to a top only glimpsed in news footage, previously unseen depositions and text-only testimony.
In lieu of either the top-level figures or the lowest-level victims — this is not a “human face of overdoses or addiction” documentary, but Showtime’s The Trade already exists — Gibney looks, sometimes with excessive curiosity or sympathy, at people like Alec Burlakoff, a sales chief at Insys whose astonishing glibness is matched only by Gibney’s over-generosity in providing self-hanging rope. There are sad and ruminative backstories given for one of Burklakoff’s primary deputies and for an unlikely fentanyl kingpin — and while I don’t disagree with the implication that past the tippy-top of wealthy predators, nearly everybody is caught in some kind of victimization vortex, my thought at more than a handful of points was: “I feel bad for this person, but people are dead because of them.”
Most disappointing is that The Crime of the Century is basically the 2019 version of this story with some updates for various disappointingly resolved lawsuits and a bit of fleeting awareness of the impact of a year-long quarantine on addiction (an element that, frankly, deserved much more acknowledgment than anything presented here). The Crime of the Century is good instead of great, which could be the lede to many Alex Gibney documentary reviews.
Director: Alex Gibney
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