mon 20/03/2023

Dopesick, Disney+ review - the harrowing inside story of America's OxyContin scandal | reviews, news & interviews

Dopesick, Disney+ review - the harrowing inside story of America's OxyContin scandal

Dopesick, Disney+ review - the harrowing inside story of America's OxyContin scandal

How corporate greed rode roughshod over regulatory oversight

Cold-blooded: Michael Stuhlbarg as Richard Sackler

“Drug companies are supposed to be honest,” says a lady from the Department of Justice, explaining why the US Food and Drug Administration had been treating the pharmaceutical industry with a light, indeed barely detectable, regulatory touch.

Dopesick is the story of how the chickens came home to roost when the unscrupulous drugs monolith Purdue launched its painkilling drug OxyContin on an unsuspecting American public, and from the mid-1990s into the 2000s set in motion one of the most devastating health scandals in medical history.

DopesickBased on the book by Beth Macy, Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company that Addicted America (how’s that for a tight, snappy title?), Dopesick achieves the none-too-easy feat of converting a fact-packed real-life story into a series that binds together strands of convincing human drama while never losing its grip on the overarching story. Creator Danny Strong has assembled a cross-section of characters – including Kentucky doctor Samuel Finnix (Michael Keaton, pictured above), Justice Department agents Rick Mountcastle and Randy Ramseyer (Peter Saarsgard and John Hoogenakker), DEA agent Bridger Meyer (Rosario Dawson) and young coal miner Betsy Mallum (Kaitlyn Dever) – through which different dimensions of the saga are channelled. As the Purdue company cynically shapes its marketing and promotional campaigns, selling OxyContin as a super-painkiller which, miraculously, is the only opioid ever invented that isn’t addictive, the sinister Sackler dynasty which owns the company looms ominously in the background.

Michael Stuhlbarg is in award-winning form with his portrayal of Richard Sackler, a cold-blooded, mercilessly ambitious tycoon who seems to convince himself of his own righteousness even while he’s deliberately bending the facts and tilting the playing field to suit his own megalomaniac ambitions. Lax FDA regulations permitted Purdue to get away with a string of outrageous claims, such as the unproven assertion that fewer that one per cent of OxyContin users would become addicted to it. In this telling, the company conned doctors and members of the public into thinking they were making a generic public service bulletin about painkillers, called “I got my life back”, then sneakily repackaged it as an OxyContin commercial.

Company salesman Billy Cutler (Will Poulter) becomes the embodiment of Purdue’s sell-at-all-costs approach, badgering Dr Finnix to attend Purdue’s all-expenses-paid five-star weekends in a luxury resort in Scottsdale, Arizona. The way Finnix, a conscientious doctor who works tirelessly to help his local community, is seduced by Purdue’s blandishments into becoming a shill for OxyContin is painful to behold. The victims of what proves to be an extremely addictive and damaging product are often poor working people like Betsy Mallum (the drug earned itself the nickname “hillbilly heroin”), who suffers chronic pain from an injury sustained in her mining work (Kaitlyn Dever as Betsy, pictured below). At first, OxyContin’s painkilling properties seem like a blessing from above, until Betsy finds she has lapsed into crippling addiction.

DopesickThe sheer brazenness of Purdue’s sales tactics is gobsmacking. They devised nifty little catchlines like “Pain is the fifth vital sign” – alongside blood pressure, heart rate etc – to legitimise the mass adoption of their product, as if not to use it would almost be a crime. They came up with the hitherto unknown condition of “Breakthrough Pain” to describe pain that defied OxyContin’s anaesthetic effects. Their solution? Double the dosage! This sent sales and profits soaring, almost as quickly as it created new swathes of Oxy addicts, which spread out from mining and logging communities to sweep across the USA. Thefts, bankruptcies, homelessness and the fatal physical and mental effects of opioid dependency duly followed in its wake.

This isn’t a fun ride, but the performances are uniformly powerful and Dopesick’s meticulous production values create a powerful aura of verisimilitude. Its warnings about power-crazed corporate greed and the ability of industrial giants to evade necessary scrutiny are more urgent now than ever.

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