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DOC TALK

A man-made plague; the pursuit of peace; honor thy mother

A scene from "The Crime of the Century."
A scene from "The Crime of the Century."HBO

The COVID-19 pandemic did not slow down the progress of another plague – that of opioid addiction. In his two -part documentary “The Crime of the Century,” the prolific Alex Gibney (this is his third documentary feature in the past year), in association with The Washington Post, exposes the history, causes, and culprits behind the wave of addictions and overdoses that have killed over half a million people so far in this century.

Like COVID-19, the opioid epidemic has surged in more than one wave. The first, covered in Part One of the documentary, originated with Purdue Pharma, the pharmaceutical giant owned by the Sackler family. The company managed to get its powerful, addictive drug OxyContin, normally prescribed for those suffering from late-stage cancer pain, approved for a wider range of patients. Doctors could now prescribe it promiscuously and some, corrupted by bribes and other paybacks, did so without regard to the negative consequences. Millions unknowingly became addicted, and sales of the drug soared.

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The abuse continued even when lawsuits imposed huge fines on the guilty companies (a taped deposition from 2015 of a smug Richard Sackler for the Kentucky v. Purdue Pharma lawsuit is one of Gibney’s scoops) or won enormous settlements for victims. When pharma companies were shut down as the supply source, addicted victims still craved the drugs, a need filled by the black market, cartels, and illegal sources in China and other countries.

Efforts by the Food and Drug Administration A to control the proliferation were undermined from within. Agents who once were dedicated to fighting the drugs became equally dedicated in fighting for them after being hired by pharma companies. And in 2016 Congress passed the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act, which effectively accomplished the opposite of what it was called. Gibney shows those behind the bill with the six-figure campaign contributions they received from pharma companies.

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In Part Two, Gibney takes on the second wave of the epidemic, the surge brought on by the synthetic opioid fentanyl. Coming late into the opioid game, John Kapoor and his Insys Therapeutics company developed an inhalant version of that drug and pushed sales teams to use any means necessary to coerce physicians into prescribing it and to deceive insurance companies into approving the cost. Kapoor’s business soared, and his employees reveled in the profits (much of this story has been told before in Tom Jennings’s 2020 documentary, “Opioids, Inc.”).

Gibney shows videos of sybaritic Purdue Pharma and Insys retreats that look like outtakes from Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013). He interviews former employees, such as Insys vice president turned whistleblower Alec Burlakoff, who is a charming, lubricious version of Scorsese’s protagonist Jordan Belfort. But any sympathy for him and the few others who have been brought to justice fades before the film’s recurring images of the fatal overdoses, mourning survivors, and swelling cemeteries brought on by an epidemic for which no vaccination has yet been discovered.

Part One of “The Crime of the Century” debuts May 10 at 9 p.m. and Part Two on May 11 at 9 p.m. on HBO. It will also be available to stream on HBO Max. Go to www.hbo.com/documentaries/the-crime-of-the-century.

From left: Yasser Arafat, President Bill Clinton, and Yitzhak Rabin.
From left: Yasser Arafat, President Bill Clinton, and Yitzhak Rabin.William J. Clinton Presidential Library. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Diplomatic dilemma

As the preface to Dror Moreh’s “The Human Factor” points out, Jews and Arabs have been fighting over the same strip of land in the Middle East for over a century. In 1991, after the end of the Cold War left the United States the world’s only superpower, it redoubled its efforts to act as a peacemaker in the region.

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The result, as seen in the film, has been three decades of Sisyphean struggle, of repeated, earnest efforts undermined by chance or bad faith or atavistic hostility. Moreh tells the behind-the-scenes story from the point of view of the negotiators, those whose role it was to find common ground and encourage compromise in order to end bloodshed and achieve some semblance of a just resolution. To date these efforts have been thwarted.

Some initiatives have come close. In 1993, Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo Accords. Though it was mostly “aspirational,” as pointed out by one of the film’s interviewees, it represented a huge step forward in the peace process. The negotiators recall with amusement how the final obstacle was manipulating Arafat into not kissing Rabin – which the Israeli leader would not tolerate – when they shook hands over the deal. But the fragile agreement radically divided both Israeli and Palestinian public opinion. It ignited violence and suffered a major blow in 1995, after Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Israeli opponent of the deal.

Years of frustration would follow, and despite the efforts of six US administrations no resolution and no clear path to peace is in sight.

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“The Human Factor” opens at the Kendall Square Cinema on May 7. Go to /bit.ly/3aZMhEP.

Rebecca Danigelis (left) and Sian-Pierre Regis.
Rebecca Danigelis (left) and Sian-Pierre Regis.Sian-Pierre Regis

Good son

Those looking for a way to celebrate Mother’s Day might consider treating Mom to a viewing of Sian-Pierre Regis’s “Duty Free.”

When his 75-year-old mother, Rebecca, loses her position as a housekeeping supervisor at a boutique Boston hotel, Regis decides to help her financially and emotionally. She feels diminished after losing a job that had been part of her identity and is frustrated searching for a new one in a market that does not favor septuagenarians. To bolster her spirits Regis suggests she set up a bucket list of things she was unable to do during the decades she labored to raise him and his schizophrenic, dependent brother -- including sacrificing her 401(k) to put Regis through college.

After raising an impressive sum in a Kickstarter campaign, the two follow through on her list. It includes such whimsical items as milking a cow and others that are wrenching and revealing of harsh past experiences.

Though sentimental at times, the film is boosted by Rebecca’s hard-nosed, dryly ironic attitude and her fastidious elegance into a witty and moving lesson in family obligations, sacrifice, and resilience.

“Duty Free” can be streamed beginning May 7 via the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s Virtual Screening Room. Go to virtualcoolidge.org/main/duty-free.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.