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Documentarian Alex Gibney On The Opioid Crisis, Corruption, And What He Shares With Nellie Bly

Alex Gibney
Alex Gibney

Academy Award-winning documentary director and producer Alex Gibney is adding another honor to his long list. The Museum of Political Corruption in Albany named Gibney the 2021 recipient of The Nellie Bly Award for Investigative Reporting.

Gibney’s many films include “Taxi to the Dark Side,” “Going Clear,” “Totally Under Control,” and the new release "The Crime of the Century,” about the opioid epidemic, which just debuted on HBO. Gibney has also directed for television.

Congratulations on this latest honor. Do you consider yourself a muckraker?

I don't know. I try not to consider myself. But yeah, I suppose I'm a muckraker, an investigator, I like to think of myself more as a private detective.

How did you first get started in this line of work?

You know, my dad was a journalist, a print journalist, and he wanted me very much to get into the family business. But in the late 70s, when I was graduating from college, you know, there was a real sense that there was a kind of magic in cinema. And so I wanted to be a filmmaker, not a not a print journalist. And, you know, I was interested in both fiction and nonfiction, to be honest with you. I went to film school. And then, you know, when faced with the vagaries of development in the scripted area, I learned that in documentaries, you can just go out and you can make them you can turn your camera on and you can make them without having to go through committees and committees and committees. So I started to make them. And it was a long, hard slog for many, many years. But, but right around, I would say, you know, maybe the turn of the century, things started to change. And I and I managed to get a few things made and done.

You went to UCLA film school?

I did. I never finished because I got a job with the Samuel Goldwyn company. But I have fond memories of UCLA, I learned a lot there. That was for graduate school. And of course, I went to undergraduate school on the East Coast.

What kind of stuff did you learn there about filmmaking? Because I imagine, you know, that the technology has obviously changed, but maybe some things that factor into your visual style haven't?

Well, it was interesting, because it was a mixture of, you know, it wasn't just documentary classes. It was a mixture of fiction and nonfiction. I learned a lot about cinematography from a man named Frank Valette, who's part of this group of directors and cinematographers who came from Czechoslovakia post Prague 68. And I learned, you know, there were some interesting documentary critics there. And also UC San Diego. So I learned a lot about observational cinema and also about stretching the medium, you know, how to be true to your subject, but at the same time, you know, how to investigate ways of telling stories that that that feel personal. So I learned a lot about that stuff.

Do you feel that we're in maybe a golden age of docs now, given the amount of different streaming services available and the amount of docs that are being made and seen?

I do. I wouldn't necessarily accord it to the streaming services. I mean, I think it started, frankly, you know, back in, in the early part of this century, as more and more people started to watch documentaries, partially because of the theatrical documentary, which is taking hold. Certain pay cable services like HBO contributed, but I think the real credit has to be given to the filmmakers who started expanding the boundaries of form and also digging into difficult content at the same time now, there have always been news documentaries on the networks but what was happening now is that filmmakers were increasingly making authored works, you know, that were both tough minded and, and often soft hearted but with a certain aesthetic rigor that, you know, we hadn't seen before. They were adventurous. They were stylistically bold and you'd go to film festivals, and suddenly, you'd think, well the wild films that I really liked were not the fiction films, but the docs because they were taking more chances. And to be honest with you, I feel like that's somewhat secular. Like when I was in college, you know, they had all these film societies. And, and I can remember one night I'd see a doc, like, “Gimme Shelter.” And the next night, I'd see a fiction film by Luis Buñuel. Well, so, you know, both were treated as movies at the time, but then we went through a long period where docs were regarded as spinach, and I think they're pretty spicy and interesting meals.

You mentioned the Rolling Stones a moment ago. In your own career, you have taken time to do sports and music films along with your maybe more spinach type projects.

Yeah, I wouldn't call them spinach, because I don't I mean, I like spinach to be honest with you, particularly when cooked with a lot of garlic. So I don't want to run down spinach. But, you know, I don't regard the investigative films as being harder to watch, though, sometimes the content is. I purposefully make them with a with a sense of, you know, of narrative drama. I think that's important to be entertaining, even as you're digging into difficult subject matter is terribly important, because it also gives you license to say things you otherwise might not be allowed to say to a broad audience. But yeah, I think it's super important to get out of the dark tunnel of corruption and look around. And I love sports. I love music. And so it's been fun to make some docs about those things.

How do you get people who maybe haven't spoken on camera about a certain issue? Or they might be putting themselves in danger to a certain degree in talking to you. How do you get people to trust you?

That's a very good question. That's a very good question. And there's no simple answer. I mean, I think a lot of it is hard work. And you've mentioned the right word, which is trust, you know, at some point, you have to convince that person that you're going to be fair, and that you're going to listen to them, and really hear them. I mean, I think that's really the most important thing. And if you can convince them of that, then then they're likely to sit down because at some, you know, just understand everybody wants to tell their own story. But the but but the people, if they're going to sit down, have to be willing to trust you to hear them. And that takes time sometimes.

A lot of your films are about the corrupting power of money or of abuse, that kind of thing. Where does your sense of right and wrong and indignation over that come from?

Truth is, I'm not sure I know entirely. But you know, I think my parents. My stepfather was a crusading minister for civil rights, William Sloane Coffin Jr., my dad was infinitely curious and also had a habit in his life of bucking authority. He said rather than sucking up and kicking down, he sucked down and kicked up, which cost him dearly, at a number of jobs. And my mom was very much the same way. She did not suffer fools gladly. And I think the three of them really gave me a powerful sense of right and wrong, and a sense of social justice that I very much infused in my work.

In the times that you've made a film on a behemoth, a powerful company or religion or that kind of thing, have you ever been afraid about publishing? Or what the repercussions might be?

Well, you know, I think sometimes when you're going up against powerful forces, you need to reckon with that fact, then, and if you're going to take those risks, they need to be risks that are earned or justified. And so, you know, yeah, of course, you should be concerned because if you're afflicting the comfortable, you know, sometimes they push back, and you need to be prepared for that. So yeah. But it doesn't stop me. But I think you need to reckon with that and very often the best weapon is to tell the truth as forcefully as possible. And that gives you protection, both in the court of public opinion and also protects you from lawsuits.

I want to talk to you about your latest project, which has just debuted on HBO, “The Crime of the Century,” a two-part film about the opioid epidemic. It is sometimes very difficult to watch. What got you interested in this particular subject?

It was a conversation I was having with the investigative reporting team at the Washington Post. And they walked me through a kind of three act structure of the opioid crisis, which to me didn't sound so much like a crisis as a crime. And it occurred to me that this whole crisis that we have been reckoning with and sort of wringing our hands about like, isn't it terrible, all these people are dying as if, you know, there have been an earthquake or a flood or something, that we were seeing it in exactly the wrong way; that it wasn't something that just happened. It was something that was manufactured by companies who were looking to profit from increased sales of opioids. And that seemed like a story worth telling, to reframe the crisis as a crime.

How did it happen? I know it's a long story, but in your mind, what was the crime specifically?

Well, look, it starts out with a desire for more money. I mean, you know, in the late 90s, a company called Purdue Pharma, which was owned by the Sacklers, who have now become kind of infamous, developed a drug called Oxycontin, which was a kind of time release oxycodone. Oxycodone is a is a is an opioid, a very powerful one once, but it's twice as powerful as morphine. And they introduced this drug, which, you know, can be quite effective for, you know, late in life, cancer patients who are suffering excruciating pain in the days before they die. But they introduced this drug at a time when the medical establishment was undergoing a kind of rethinking of the whole notion of pain, it was becoming the fifth vital sign, nothing more important than solving pain and, and it's in that context, that they introduce Oxycontin, as this drug, one to start with, and the one to stay with.

And they promote it as a drug, which because of its time release mechanism, is not addictive, and also not prone to abuse. Now, neither of those things were true. And one of the things we looked at in in the film is that they corrupted the FDA and the FDA allowed them to claim those things in the package insert and the person responsible for that ends up going to work for Purdue. You see how they corrupt doctors through kind of blandishments, and speakers programs. And they do this very aggressive marketing campaign on doctors, both trying to guilt them into using the drug and also trying to really sell them this bill of goods that no matter how much they would prescribe, people wouldn't overdose, they wouldn't get addicted, and it would be impossible to abuse the drug. And all those things were just false.

So it was fraud in the main. I talked about Purdue and the Sacklers in the film, but honestly, once Purdue succeeded in this way, a number of other companies jumped into the market, some of America's biggest corporations. So it got bigger than that. And then once the demand was established, once a lot of people were addicted to these drugs, and either doctors wouldn't prescribe them any longer or they couldn't afford them, they turn to illicit drugs called heroin and now increasingly, fentanyl. Fentanyl is an extremely dangerous drug, you know, 15 times more powerful than heroin. And, you know, we talk to the agents and people are smoking it and the pipe is still in their hand when they die because the hit is so fast and so furious that that there's no time for them to even drop the pipe.

So that, in essence, is the story and the crime and there's a kind of a crossover between the licit and the illicit. There's  other crimes along the way, sadly, which we can talk about involving the Department of Justic,e Congress. You know, that's the other thing that struck me about this story. There's been a lot of talk about Purdue and the Sacklers. And they deserve a great deal of the blame here because, you know, they kind of lit the match that that became the forest fire of the opioid crisis. But, you know, this story really also is a lot more like Agatha Christie's “Murder on the Orient Express,” you think that one person is to blame, but actually there are a whole lot of people who are complicit and, you know, bad doctors, bad pharmacies. These huge opioid distributors, like Cardinal Health, Amerisource Bergen, McKesson, Johnson, and Johnson, the baby shampoo people, and Congress itself, and the Department of Justice which failed, you know, when they had a magnificent investigation that was done into the crime. So Purdue Pharma at the last minute, they blinked due to a lot of political pressure, and let them off with kind of a hand slap. And that gave permission to a lot of other companies to enter the market.

I don't know if this was in your mind while you were working on this project. But it is kind of amazing to see some of the mistakes in your previous work on Enron sort of repeat just with a different subject matter. I mean, it comes down to corporate avarice to a large degree and then a lack of oversight, intentional or unintentional, right?

Yeah. And one of the things I've become interested in is the whole idea of corruption. And when I say corruption, of course, there's a political element to corruption. But there's also a personal element to corruption. And one of the things that interested me in the Enron story was, you know, I talked to a lot of people who were had been at Enron, some appeared on camera, and some didn't. But they all talked about that gut check moment when they felt that things were going wrong, that the people were bending the rules. And instead of saying something, they just let it go.

And then they realize years later, you know that there was a line in the sand a moral line in the sand that they crossed, that they barely noticed. And once they passed it, then they just kept on going. I think that's what happens here. And to me, the villain is usually some variation of the end justifies the means, you know, once you have a noble cause, and even the folks at Enron felt they had a noble cause, they were going to deregulate energy markets and solve, you know, America's energy problems and the world's energy problems forever. Once you have that, that, that ideal that vision, then somehow that gives you permission to start cutting corners in the service of that noble ideal.

So you know, the people that at Purdue Pharma thought, look, you know, pain is so important, it's so important to reduce, diminish pain, we've got this wonderful drug, and it can't be abused. And, you know, it was willful denial, but they allowed themselves to be fooled by their own propaganda, so that they wouldn't have to take responsibility for the damage it was causing. And I see that over and over and over again, in some of the films I've done.

This particular project ends with some ambiguity, because the Sacklers have fallen from grace to a certain degree and Purdue has been hit with a $8 billion penalty. But on the other hand, you make the point that the pandemic has only worsened opioid abuse rates in the country. And, you know, a lot of people who were maybe in treatment or trying to recover just fell through the cracks. So it's not exactly an optimistic ending.

No, it's not, but I think it does point to something bigger and more important. And that is, you know, the, the root of this is really the unsavory mixture of commerce and healthcare. And nothing points that up more strongly than the opioid crisis or the opioid crime. And so what it really tells us is that we have to help fix our healthcare system. And take out of it all those bad economic incentives, that are incentives for profit, not incentives for patient care. If we could reorient our healthcare system toward patient care and holistic patient care, rather than profit making and hope that the invisible hand of the economy will take care of all our problems, I think we'd be a lot better off. So if this film can nudge us in that direction, I would be very happy because yeah, I mean, the plight of those either in pain who need medication or those who are now addicted and are fooling with deadly drugs in order to seek that addiction. We owe them a better system.

What are you working on next?

You know, I never really like to talk about what I'm working on next because then it kind of saps its of its energy. But let's just say I'm working on a an investigative film, as well as a film about sports and a film about music.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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