Travis Leamons // Film Critic
THE CRIME OF THE CENTURY
TV-MA, 231 minutes
Director: Alex Gibney
Several years ago, I made a resolution at the start of the year. The resolution was to read more. But I imposed a rule to make the experience entertaining and informative. The rule: alternate between fiction and non-fiction. Little did I know that this simple rule would make me take an interest in Big Pharma. It began with Sam Quinones’ DREAMLAND, where Portsmouth, Ohio, became one of the hundreds of small rural towns devastated by addiction attributed to prescription pain medications.
The novel shows the symbiotic nature of free enterprise as big pharmaceutical companies make billions selling OxyContin. At the same time, a small Mexican county on the west coast pushes black tar heroin into the drug market, spreading like a spider’s web going into small towns and mid-size cities. As oxycodone pain killers became more expensive and hard to acquire, addicts switched to heroin – a cheaper, more potent drug fix alternative.
Such an absorbing account, I was intrigued to read more about drug addiction despite no desire in ever wanting to take a shot, a hit, or a snort.
Because of my interest in the subject, more than half of Alex Gibney’s two-part documentary, THE CRIME OF THE CENTURY, felt perfunctory. But for the layman, it is likely to be an eye-opener.
Evidence is presented showing how one particular pharmaceutical company (Purdue Pharma) grew to become the supreme drug dealer in all the land. Yet despite its growth and prosperity, you wouldn’t find them as part of the federal government’s watchlist on the “War on Drugs” – a war that has been ongoing longer in America than all the world, foreign, and civil engagements combined. The reason: bureaucratic nepotism. Bribery lining the pockets of elected officials allowing companies to skirt accountability. And even as Big Pharma is found guilty of wrongdoing, millions in fines for billion-dollar fiefdoms is chump change in terms of profits generated.
Forget Tony Montana and Walter White, and look to the Sackler family to see some real drug kingpins. They built Purdue Pharma and inspired several companies to profit from pain medication. The docuseries charts the history of opiates, from their discovery and usage to their proliferation in small towns as sales reps cajole doctors to prescribe pain killers. Written prescriptions in exchange for cash as pop-up pain clinics and pill mills spread throughout the southeast.
Gibney is seemingly omnipresent with churning out new documentaries. He’s like the non-fiction filmmaking equivalent to author James Patterson. Perhaps that is a credit to his research staff and data-mining information. THE CRIME OF THE CENTURY has plenty of damning evidence and insider material about the pharmaceutical companies it targets to the extent we become immersed in the white-collar world of drug pushing. The assembly line of packaging, marketing, and distribution, and how to outsmart the FDA and Congress in the process.
Lending credence to America’s silent epidemic are investigative journalists from the Washington Post, author Barry Meier (PAIN KILLER), various Boston and Massachusetts state ADAs, former sales reps, and good docs like Art Van Zee, who have been fighting back against Purdue Pharma.
As expressed earlier, most of the material I was fairly familiar with, so I sat with bemusement as Gibney cues up Curtis Mayfield’s “Pusher Man” as he zeros in on the Sackler mansions. Under the direction of Raymond Sackler, Purdue Pharma would take off like a rocket with OxyContin and heavy advertising push with pamphlets downplaying its addictive potential. The invention of words and phrases like “pseudoaddiction” also helped control the story should any fact-checkers get nosey.
The second part turns its attention away from Purdue Pharma and concentrates its efforts on the legacy of Insys, a smaller medical company founded by entrepreneur John Kapoor. He, too, was in the business of mainstreaming opioids with his injector application Susys. Key figures in explaining the dark and dirty side from a marketing perspective are former VP of sales Alec Burlakoff and regional manager Sunshine Lee. Both undertake a Faustian bargain for success, though in comparing the two Burklaoff’s seemed like a natural extension, not a sweeping transformation.
Whiplashing from the criminal enterprise of big Pharma are those on the frontlines dealing with the opioid epidemic daily. Including a West Virginia paramedic in a small Appalachian community or a DEA agent conducting a sting operation in a Target parking lot. Stories from former addicts offer a measure of condolence. However, you get the feeling Gibney can’t decide he wants to educate us on how drug corporations have run amuck, have destroyed lives and communities, or how they continue to make it next to impossible for those trying to mount a defense. Maybe the answer is all of the above.
If THE CRIME OF THE CENTURY is to be guilty of something, it may be gluttony. At nearly four hours in length, it is information overload for those hearing about the opioid crisis for the first time. Gibney’s latest is explosive but not as refined as some of his previous works. A great introduction that hopefully leads viewers to more stories and recounts about opioids.
Nevertheless, Gibney shows the price of addiction and prosperity no matter the cost go hand in hand like a pharmacist awaiting a doctor’s prescription.
THE CRIME OF THE CENTURY is now available on HBOMax.