For many Americans, the topic of opioid addiction is a deeply personal one. It evokes the real, human faces of parents, siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, friends and acquaintances. The long, painful tendrils of the so-called “crisis”—a euphemism that fails to indict flesh-and-blood executives for their role in willingly creating dependency—touch communities that might otherwise seem unrelated, suddenly connecting them through loss, grief and a dearth of resources for moving forward.
Despite spanning four hours, filmmaker Alex Gibney’s two-part documentary The Crime of the Century is largely uninterested in depicting any individuals or communities impacted by opioid addiction. Instead, Gibney’s project is solely focused on the corporate machine that created, fueled and profited off of the fraudulent marketing of highly addictive drugs like OxyContin and Fentanyl. There are snippets of stories told by relatives of those killed by prescription opioids—but these stories are entirely centered on white, middle-class people, perhaps because their deaths are superficially deemed as uniquely tragic as opposed to those of low-income people of color.
The insidious nature of Purdue Pharma, the Sackler family-owned company that manufactures OxyContin, is a compelling enough premise for a feature-length documentary on its face. However, the general public is by now well aware of the various legal actions taken against the pharmaceutical giant, so spending the majority of the first half of the film recapitulating what has been made public record via dogged reporting feels like largely unnecessary fodder. This is no exposé. It’s clear that Gibney’s true interest is the corporate culture of companies like Purdue and its opioid competitors, which is detailed at length throughout the remainder of the film. However, this survey—coupled with a lack of interviews with opioid users and an overt platforming of DEA crackdown tactics—can’t help but signal a lack of compassion for addicts.
It’s important to note early on the irony and/or hypocrisy of HBO putting out a documentary that condemns the Sackler family and its infiltration of philanthropy and the arts when in 2018, the network distributed documentary It’s a Hard Truth Ain’t It and drama feature OG. Both films were helmed by Madeleine Sackler—granddaughter of Raymond Sackler, who co-founded Purdue Pharma with his brother Mortimer and profited immensely off of the patenting of OxyContin. Her father, Jonathan Sackler, was a joint owner of Purdue until his death in 2020. Either shot entirely in prison or co-directed by inmates, the films ostensibly serve as a way for incarcerated people to tell their own stories. Yet, many of these stories involve illicit opioid use and dependency, creating a clear line between Sackler’s shady family ties and the individuals punished for addictions said to be “excruciatingly rare.” In true Sackler tradition, Madeleine has repeatedly dodged questions concerning her family’s fortune—derived from fraudulently marketing Oxycontin as non-addictive—and whether she has any responsibility to address this truth in her work.
Gibney’s documentary is obsessed with functioning within a sphere of power, whether it be spotlighting the high-level sales representatives of corrupt pharmaceutical companies or hack doctors who willingly over-prescribed opioids in order to secure financial kickbacks from the drug manufacturers. But by never stepping outside of this nexus of power, the film loses any personal connection to the issue. The film highlights that over 500,000 Americans have overdosed on opioids (both prescription and illicit) in the U.S. since 2000, so to later distance itself from the human face of addiction is to alienate viewers who will understandably find issue with the continued platforming of corrupt criminals in lieu of those whose deaths lined their pockets.
The Crime of the Century also has a vested interest in law enforcement, namely the DEA, and how these entities are supposedly responding to the crisis. Again, when highlighting the deaths of middle-class white people, it’s easy to champion that those responsible be brought to justice. The film features an entire raid orchestrated for local agents to capture a drug dealer suspected of selling the batch of opioids that led to a 24-year-old white woman’s overdose. Yet there is no examination of the police’s nefarious tactics when it comes to terrorizing opioid addicts that might not have the privilege of nuclear families demanding an arrest be made. In August of 2019, it was widely reported that while engaging in “Operation Clean Sweep,” the Boston Police Department decimated homeless encampments on “Methadone Mile,” an intersection of two busy South End streets that features several homeless shelters and drug treatment facilities. The crudely titled operation saw the arrest of dozens of addicts who did not have the luxury of having their humanity innately recognized. Among the personal possessions cruelly tossed by the BPD were multiple wheelchairs.
The rare times addicts are shown, it’s through bodycam or cell phone footage. Unresponsive grey-blue bodies with their faces occasionally blurred. It feels like this is the only meaningful way Gibney can interact with these people: Another body, another statistic, another damning indictment of the mounting death toll of FDA-approved opioid abuse. There is an overwhelming cautiousness, as if he is scared to get too close to the other problems in our culture that fuel the desire to over-medicate that aren’t as clean-cut as corporate greed.
Perhaps this is why the only living opioid addict interviewed in the film is a man who also sold Fentanyl to fellow addicts. When the DEA violently raided his home and arrested him in front of his unsuspecting wife and young children, the man claimed that the entire ordeal and his subsequent prison sentence “saved his life.” While the man’s story is undeniably compelling and his gratitude for being clean appears sincere, the documentary can’t help but seem as if it’s championing state-sanctioned intervention and incarceration as the only solutions for combating opioid addiction. Grassroots organizing, mutual aid and community resources are never addressed or engaged with.
The Crime of the Century doesn’t miss the mark 100 percent of the time. There is a salient interrogation of how many members of congress are shamelessly in the pocket of powerful and corrupt corporations, and compelling evidence to suggest that many don’t even bother to read the majority of the legislation they pass. There are also jaw-dropping archival videos of drug companies parodying top 40 hits in order to sell drugs (footage which comes close to eliciting the most superficial Adam Curtis vibes) but ultimately miss the opportunity to investigate the intersection of drugs, culture and capital.
Because of this, The Crime of the Century is far too safe and shallow. The culprits of the “crisis” interviewed have already been put on trial, justice has been “served”—yet the viewers, along with the filmmaker, are all too aware that nothing will really change. The drugs continue to be over-prescribed, people continue to die, no one is held responsible. There is nothing wrong with cynicism and brutal honesty, but why feign the illusion of progress within a system that is beyond broken?
Director: Alex Gibney
Writer: Alex Gibney
Release Date: May 10, 2021 (HBO Max)
Natalia Keogan is a Queens-based writer who covers film, music and culture, with particular interest in the horror genre and depictions of sexuality and gender. You can read her work in Narratively, Filmmaker Magazine and Paste, and find her on Twitter.