Money, addiction and death
Shattering documentary drills deep into opioid crisis and exposes enablers
The Crime of the Century
Debuts Monday, Crave
When you hear the phrase “the opioid crisis,” it can sound like it's referring to a natural disaster with a beginning and an end. But as Alex Gibney's shattering twopart, four-hour documentary The Crime of the Century makes devastatingly clear, the opioid crisis is more than a human tragedy that has claimed half a million lives.
It's part of what America (and, to a similar if perhaps lesser degree, Canada) has become: a nation of addicts, fuelled by scuzzy alternating currents of pleasure and despair; a nation of corporate malfeasance; of doctors who knowingly trash the credo of “do no harm”; of regulatory agencies that no longer function as they were designed to; of politicians who allow laws to be written for them. The Crime of the Century is a saga of addiction that could have been titled What We Did for Greed.
The first half of the film investigates how Purdue Pharma, in 1996, brought OxyContin onto the market and pushed it like fast food — in a way that was so medically irresponsible it was morally (and maybe legally) indistinguishable from back-alley drug dealing. OxyContin wasn't the first opiate identical to heroin to be marketed as a narcotic for pain relief. But each pill was embossed with a sealant that allowed the drug to be time-released into the bloodstream, and Purdue executives used that fact to pretend that the drug was infinitely safer — less prone to abuse — than it was. FDA official Curtis Wright allowed Purdue officials to literally write the drug's approval for him (within a year, Purdue had hired him at a salary of US$375,000). The stage was then set for the drug to be prescribed not just for late-stage cancer patients or for those recovering from surgery, but for anyone suffering from any kind of pain.
It was more or less invented in the early '60s by Dr. Arthur Sackler, who brought drugs into the age of advertising with the marketing of Valium. OxyContin was sold as a quality-of-life drug, which is how it hooked thousands. And that marked a paradigm shift: From this point on, you could basically walk into a doctor's office and ask for pain relief. The Crime of the Century is a full-scale vision of how many countries addicted to pain relief, embraced the corruption of legalized drug pushing.
Gibney interviews people such as Patrick Radden Keefe, who did groundbreaking reporting on the epidemic and wrote the new book Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty, and Art Van Zee, a small-town physician from western Virginia who was one of the first to see his community decimated and testified before the Senate, where his pleas were shot down by
Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut (the home base of Purdue).
The movie shows us how Rudy Giuliani, once he left office, became a pitchman/hatchet man for Purdue, using his prestige as “America's Mayor” to lend the company credibility.
And we see Paul Goldenheim, Purdue's chief medical officer, testifying before Congress that once Purdue learned that OxyContin was becoming a heartland problem, the company sprang into action.
The Crime of the Century does have a hero: Joe Rannazzisi, the former DEA enforcer who was nudged out by members of Congress bowing to pressure from the pharmaceutical industry. He's still on the anti-opioids warpath, though now he's working on a grassroots level, a David fighting the corporate Goliath.