It doesn’t take much to get Alex Gibney to describe how sickening it was to view how prescription drug companies were neglecting the safety of patients to make more money with the sale of opioids. “The willful denial, in the service of profit really made me ill,” he tells us in our recent webchat about his newest documentary, “The Crime of the Century” (watch the exclusive video above). The pursuit of profit that Purdue Pharma brought to Gibney’s mind the title of one of his previous documentaries about Jack Abramoff, “Casino Jack and the United States of Money.” “I kept hearing that subtitle in the background here. That says all and then when you see the staggering amount of suffering involved and death, I mean, it really makes your head spin.”
“The Crime of the Century,” which is currently available to stream on HBO Max looks into the role that pharmaceutical companies played in helping to create the current opioid epidemic which is ravaging the U.S. The first part of the two-parter details how Purdue Pharma introduced and pushed Oxycontin despite its risk of addiction to its users. The second part examines how this led to the popularization of Fentanyl and how Insys Therapeutics would get doctors to overprescribe the deadly painkiller.
Gibney is a modern legend in the field of documentary filmmaking. He won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 2007 for “Taxi to the Dark Side” after receiving his first nomination two years earlier for “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.” He’s also won four Emmys for his non-fiction work. His first was for Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking for “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God” in 2013. In 2015 he picked up three more Emmys for “Going Clear: Scientology & the Prison of Belief” as a writer, director and producer.
One of the more jaw-dropping moments for Gibney came while he was interviewing Dr. Lynn Webster, who headed Lifetree Pain Clinic in Utah. Gibney asked if the 100 patients that died from opioid use at his clinic was a high number. “I expected him to correct me and say, ‘No, no, it was only 50,’ which would have been a high number.” The answer he got from Webster was much more jarring. “Instead he said, ‘Oh, I don’t know. Is that a high number, a hundred people?’ And you’re asking yourself, is that a high number? That was staggering to me.”
The idea for the documentary came while having a conversation with several investigative reporters at The Washington Post. “They had been covering more of the distribution stuff and they had a really interesting angle on it.” Gibney started developing it in the mold of a three-act tragedy starting with Purdue and Oxycontin, then heroin addiction and then, finally, Fentanyl. In focusing on the supply side of the problem, he hoped to be able to showcase a new way of looking at the crisis. “What you hadn’t seen is the breadth of it, that three act structure or the three drug structure and the sense of how pervasive it was and how monumental it was and how many people were involved in the crime.”
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