Michael Keaton got the opportunity to show his dramatic chops in 1988’s “Clean and Sober,” in which he gave a blistering, award-winning performance as a successful real estate agent who goes down the deep dark rabbit hole of cocaine addiction And now 33 years later, he has returned to the harrowing world of addiction in Hulu’s new limited series “Dopesick.”
Based on the acclaimed non-fiction book, “Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company That Addicted America” by Beth Macy, the series looks at the deadly opioid crisis that has killed over 800,000 people since the 1990s when the Sackler family’s company Purdue Pharma introduced the highly addictive painkiller Oxycontin, which was advertised as far less habit-forming than other medications. However, Purdue Pharma had their salespeople and reps wine and dine doctors to prescribe the medication in higher doses and to keep them on the painkiller longer than needed.
Keaton plays Dr. Samuel Finnix, a physician in a small Virginia town, who prescribes the medication to his patients only to witness them becoming addicts and even dying from the drug. Rosario Dawson costars as a no-nonsense DEA agent doggedly determined to bring an end to the opioid nightmare. The Washington Post recently hosted a Zoom interview with Keaton, Dawson and Emmy Award-winning creator/writer Danny Strong (“Game Change”).
All three were angry about a recent bankruptcy settlement involving Purdue Pharma where the judge approved a plan giving the Sackler family immunity from any wrongdoing either criminal or ethical, after they agreed to contribute around $4.3 billion of their own money to the deal. They also gave up their equity in the company. As of 2019, there are no family members on the board or in management positions. A division of the Justice Department has filed an appeal to block the decision.
“I think my reaction to the bankruptcy settlement is almost like everyone in the country, which is disbelief that they’ve been granted immunity to any civil litigation moving forward, disbelief that this settlement will just be a drop in the bucket for them financially,” Strong said. “It sounds like a huge settlement, but they get to pay it over nine years. Ultimately, it goes into everything I’ve been feeling about the Sacklers through my entire research into this crisis, which is that they always get away with it.” He says the Sacklers’ enormous fortune is the reason why. “It just goes to show how the ultra-wealthy are able to game the system at the highest levels of the American government, in the Justice Department, in Congress and the DEA. They’re able to game the system to the point that they’re able to sell this drug for as long as they did, lying about it. And then having, ultimately, no repercussions besides the public shaming they’ve taken on.”
“You have people who are languishing in jail right now because they had a joint in their pocket,” said Dawson. “The system is rigged against the poor, is rigged against minorities, rigged against classes that are designed to continue perpetuating a narrative that if you get in trouble, you deserved it. And if you get away with it, then good for you.” “’Dopesick,’” she added, “pushes back on the narrative of blaming the victim and ostracizing and stigmatizing the addict and hopefully, starts building up more humanity and an appreciation and compassionate look at just the flaws of human beings.”
Keaton was shocked during the production at just how “overt the criminal behavior was, how overt the manipulation of everything was. I’m glad, really, glad to be part of this and bringing it into awareness. The thing I really love about this limited series is not only is it about something important, it plays somewhat as a thriller and avoids being righteous or preachy.” Speaking with doctors, added Keaton, “I was always learning something when we were shooting because as I said before, it was so overt, the manipulation and the ingenious salesmanship of selling an addictive drug and lying about it. I would often do a scene and I’d talk to Danny or [executive producer] Barry Levinson or someone else to say, I think this is a little too obvious and not really believable They would inevitably tell me or point to something that was, not word-for-word, but just factual. It seemed impossible that this was occurring.”
Strong decided to dramatize the story-moving from fact to fiction because during his research he came across many different stories of the “journey of addiction. They’re so powerful, all these different tales. I thought if I had composite characters, I could use more of these stories in the show as opposed to being confined by the actions of one individual person. By doing that, it felt like I was able to tap into a more universal truth. The more we could get into the show, the better understanding of the totality of the opioid crisis.”
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