The Crime of the Century Review: A towering examination of the Opioid Crisis

Alex Gibney takes on Big Pharma in a doc as tough as any noir

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8 mins read

We all know that way too many people have died from overdosing on supposedly legal drugs, but have you looked at the numbers lately? In Alex Gibney’s brilliant new investigative series The Crime of the Century, the stats confront us at the film’s end. 487,842 Americans have died from overdosing on OxyContin, Fentanyl and related substances and it’s estimated that over 10 million are misusing drugs. In Canada, it’s estimated that 20,000 Canadians have died from apparent opioid-related overdoses since 2016—smaller but still deadly numbers.

Working with the investigative unit of the Washington Post, which might now become as renowned as the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team, Gibney (and his own crew of documentarians) has created a film that is as tough as any noir, exposing the corrupt force that we now know as Big Pharma. Over the course of four hours, The Crime of the Century reveals with absolute clarity that companies like Purdue Pharma and Insys Therapeutics have instigated the spending of billions of dollars by often very ill people, who were duped into taking medication that addicted and eventually killed them. Early on, the film establishes that drugs like opium, cocaine, laudanum and heroin have made fortunes for centuries, even causing a war in 19th century China, but it’s only recently that purportedly legal pharmaceutical firms have started to take advantage of the addictive nature of such substances.

It’s great to see HBO, Gibney and the Post take on, first and foremost, the originators of what has caused the death of so many, the Sackler family and their company, Purdue Frederick, which was ultimately renamed for trading purposes, Purdue Pharma. It was Purdue that started marketing OxyContin, which offered higher doses of medication than previous pills like Percodan but was argued to be alright because it worked slowly via time release. That it was much stronger and more likely to be addictive was concealed by Purdue, which worked with an administrator at the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), Curtis Wright, to ensure that it was approved for use in the U.S. In the film, it becomes clear that Curtis, who later worked for Purdue, helped the company to craft their proposal so it would be passed.

Within a few years, OxyContin became a highly sought-after medication, particularly in the West Virginia area, which was targeted by Purdue to see how effectively it would work on a select population. Dubbed “hillbilly heroin,” OxyContin became the top money maker for Purdue. A former Purdue sales rep in the ‘90s, Mark Ross, reveals that he filed reports to head office, revealing the dark, addictive side of the drug, but to no avail. Officially, Purdue knew nothing and saw nothing.

This is the kind of duplicity that’s revealed again and again in the film. Like Columbo or Sam Spade, Gibney and crew spend the time and do the research necessary to establish how Purdue and others succeeded in making billions of dollars while addicting millions of people. Much of part one of The Crime of the Century show how drug dealing led to the corruption of members of the FDA and the U.S. Congress. The film establishes that a major investigation, which took five years, by Attorney John Brownlee of the Western District of Virginia into Purdue and OxyContin led to $634 million in fines to the company and some of its executives—but that it was only “a speeding ticket” in comparison to the billions being made by 2007, 12 years after the drug had been approved by the FDA.

There’s much more in The Crime of the Century part one, but that should intrigue potential viewers to “follow the money” and find out more of the duplicitous and corrupt schemes enacted by Purdue. In part two, Gibney’s team and the Post go after Fentanyl, its sublingual spray Susbys and in particular, John Koomar’s company, Insys Therapeutics. Way more contemporary in style, this section concentrates on the streetwise attitude of the past six years, with hipper sounds coming from, in the funniest example, a music video created by a couple of Insys sales reps to win a contest praising the company’s killer instinct. Since Koomar apparently wouldn’t talk to Gibney, one of Insys’ V.P.s, Alec Burlakoff, and his key sales manager Sunrise Lee (they met in a strip club where she was working) tell how they pushed the reps to continually up the ante on getting doctors on board to rapidly increase their customer base. Neither Purdue nor Insys ever offer remorse (except some employees who got caught): it’s all about “What’s in it for me,” which is the title of part two of this devastating doc series.

The consequences of years of corrupt behaviour is a Congress that can be bought and sold. Pharmaceutical companies had to pay to make legal the drugs they wanted to sell and to close loops so that no law would prevent them for making the highest profits. Former DEA agent Joe Rannazzisi is a key figure in the doc-series. He’s a truth teller, who fought the creation of the 2016 Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act, which hobbles the DEA from fighting the drug companies. Gibney’s film makes it clear through Rannazzisi that the main lobbyists and Congressional figures who passed the act have received hundreds of thousands of dollars from Big Pharma.

The Crime of the Century has the virtues of classic documentaries: it tells the truth unequivocally and forcefully. While there’s nothing fancy in the film’s techniques, Gibney uses verité, superb interviews, reconstructions, archival footage and well edited TV news material to tell his complicated story in as direct a way as possible. This two-parter combines the best of investigative journalism with the content of old-fashioned tough- as-nails documentaries. It should be seen by people who still believe in the legal system and the democratic process. When companies like HBO and Bell/Crave can support a series like The Crime of the Century, there is still hope for better governments to prevail in this pernicious time.

The Crime of the Century airs on Crave beginning with part one on May 10 and part two on May 11.

Marc Glassman is the editor of POV Magazine and contributes film reviews to Classical FM. He is an adjunct professor at Ryerson University and is the treasure of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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