The Crime of the Century frustrates by leaving too much of its incisive subject matter dangling, but is still one of the most clear-eyed studies of the opioid epidemic that has been put to film.
Nonfiction filmmaker Alex Gibney and TV channel HBO have cultivated a strong working relationship over the last decade, beginning with the dramatically titled Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God in 2012 — detailing the emergence of public awareness surrounding the Catholic Church’s enabling of sexual abuse — while more recently capturing the imagination of American public with the much-memed Elizabeth Holmes profile The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley. At this point in his career, Gibney seems to favor hypertopicality above all else, always on the lookout for the latest American sociopolitical catastrophe or scandal that has yet to be definitively documented at feature length. Having won an Oscar back in 2008 and an Emmy in 2015, the director/producer has no problem with access and has been able to score enough credible interview and archival material to make documentary works covering the Covid pandemic (Totally Under Control), Russiagate (the rightfully ignored Agents of Chaos), the Innocence Project (Netflix miniseries The Innocence Files), violent criminal psychology (Crazy, Not Insane), and Mikhail Khodorkovsky (Citizen K) — all within the last two years. The distribution and promotion mechanism employed by HBO Documentaries is ideal for this pace that Gibney works at, allowing for quicker turnaround between production and exhibition than theatrical release would, with fewer constraints in terms of runtime and structure; his aesthetic interest is more in line with those of streaming and pay cable services than the cinematic anyhow.
And so, it comes as no surprise that around seven months after the aforementioned Agents of Chaos premiered, Gibney has a new (much less embarrassing) film debuting under the HBO Documentaries banner, a two-part, four-hour chronicle of the American opioid crisis entitled The Crime of the Century. Airing across two nights, the film traces out the crisis’s history chronologically, beginning in part one with Purdue Pharma and the Sackler Family, who pioneered aggressive marketing techniques and legally dubious means (re: bribing doctors) of pushing pharmaceuticals, which they applied to the sale of highly addictive drugs like Valium and eventually, OxyContin, essentially kickstarting the U.S. opioid epidemic. Part two then goes on to detail how the Sackler/Purdue methodology evolved into industry standard, and provided a template for biomed CEO John Kapoor and his Insys Therapeutics company, which they used to sell Subsys, a liquid fentanyl spray, on a wide, knowingly irresponsible scale, effectively exacerbating and prolonging the epidemic. Over the two two-hour chapters, Gibney brings in talking-head interviews from pertinent journalists and doctors who attest to the conscious, reckless criminality (OxyContin and fentanyl were promoted specifically because they were so addictive) and extreme sociopathy of those at Purdue and Insys who sacrificed over half a million lives in the name of unfathomable profit.
The Crime of the Century is at its most compelling when it’s focused on building this narrative out, almost capturing the energy and scope of an Adam Curtis film in particular moments of historical tangent — it also helps the comparison that Curtis’ recent Can’t Get You Out of My Head has a prominent thread concerning Arthur Sackler and OxyContin. But the film’s momentum isn’t consistent, disrupting pacing in favor of (well-intentioned) testimony and anecdote from victims and community members impacted by the crisis; a sensical choice designed to balance the range of voices and perspectives this movie platforms, but one that occasionally feels arbitrary in terms of who was chosen and how their scenes play in relation to the rest of The Crime of the Century’s dramaturgy. Some of this feeling may stem from the film’s lack of an aesthetic throughline (a common affliction of the modern American documentary), with interviews being staged any old place, and random animation motifs being introduced late in film. But Gibney also appears to have preferences in whose victimhood he’s most interested in probing, with much of the film’s undertone suggesting that the opioid epidemic is especially bad because it touched the lives of those who had not, and otherwise might not have, experienced addiction. Which is, of course, true in a sense, specifically in what it suggests of the scope of this problem and the corruptibility of medical professionals, but is also telling in its disinterest around the way in which addiction is stigmatized and discussed in America, in the context of opioids or otherwise.
There’s also a tedious refusal to think outside the film’s subject at all, saving most of its righteous indignation for the most literal perpetrators of this crime and essentially no one else, offering little more than exasperation to revelations that the Obama administration did nothing to impede the passing of legislation preventing the DEA (an organization the movie also has way too much faith in, the war on drugs going unmentioned) from prosecuting pharmaceutical distribution companies. Gibney leaves many such threads dangling, his own material making a clear case for the incompatibility of capitalism and health care that he refuses to develop past implication — deeply frustrating. Still, this is the sort of project one is reticent to dismiss wholeheartedly, there being more than enough to draw from here that viewers will hopefully extrapolate the bigger picture on their own. And to his credit, Gibney effectively cements the narrative that the opioid epidemic was a consciously orchestrated crime still being carried out today by pharma companies, distributors (Cardinal Health and McKesson highlighted here) and doctors working in tandem; a fact that probably hasn’t been so explicitly spelled out in such a visible manner. The Crime of the Century is an achievement, certainly, but one earned by only telling half the story.
You can currently stream Alex Gibney’s Crime of the Century on HBO.