Most Americans understand that there’s something morally wrong about a drug dealer giving an addict a fix in a back alley, making a profit off someone else’s inner demons. What HBO’s new two-part docuseries The Crime of the Century wants us to do is apply that same logic to Purdue Pharma, which continued to ruthlessly push OxyContin onto Americans long after they were aware the horrors their product was capable of creating. Purdue did all this with the permission — and frequently, assistance — of the government.
The Crime of the Century gives away its aim in the title. The opioid crisis, it posits, was worse than a tragedy. It was deliberate. It was malevolent. It was a crime that cost half a million lives, and counting.
Filmmaker Alex Gibney does an excellent job arguing his thesis, showing just how far avarice has wormed its way into institutions ostensibly supposed to protect us. From regulatory agencies who no longer regulate much of anything to political leaders who let their donors make their own laws to doctors who follow the lead of the drug companies that cut them a check, Gibney argues that greed is the spiritual crisis that led to our opioid one. And Crime of the Century argues, none of the architects of the opioid crisis have faced any serious justice — even after their complicity was made plain. Purdue was slapped with a $600 million fine, but what is that kind of money to a company that made billions off their product?
Gibney has built a small but solid resume of this kind of work, with documentaries like Going Clear and The Inventor, and knows how to keep a cool head around enraging topics. His work has moral clarity, but never gets lost in its own preachiness. He trusts the facts to speak for themselves and in this feature, they do.
The cast of characters in The Crime of the Century is largely familiar, from the Sackler family to Rudy Giuliani, and sometimes the level of corruption at high levels can lead to despair and cynicism. But there are also protagonists — the people who’ve spent years fighting for more accountability. That fight is ongoing, as The Crime of the Century makes clear, and after watching, you might just be tempted to get involved.
The Crime of the Century is available on HBOMax.