Friday, December 16, 2011

Smoking Gun

Addiction Incorporated
Produced & Directed by Charles Evans Jr.
A Variance Films Release; opened November 14, 2011

The current demonization of Wall Street may have helped trigger the Occupy movement, but there’s an even more hated entity in the minds of most Americans: Big Tobacco. Thanks to shrewd marketing that has kept millions of Americans smoking (and dying) from the teen years on (sometimes even earlier), tobacco companies are the most egregious example of corporate greed and heartlessness that predates what’s now on the daily news and in the streets.

Charles Evans, Jr.’s documentary Addiction Incorporated shines a flashlight on Big Tobacco and its underhanded tactics that rope smokers in, at least until they die of lung cancer. It’s not simply a shrill polemic, as Evans allows tobacco company defenders to have their say, but since that say is often Spin 101, it doesn’t take much to show how absurd and unethical their position is. (There’s a delicious moment when all seven Big Tobacco CEOs say, under oath at a congressional hearing, that they believe that nicotine is not addictive.)

Victor DeNoble, the movie’s protagonist, worked for a tobacco company in the 1980s as a research scientist: he helped created a new form of nicotine in the lab that was less lethal but more addictive, so smokers would be stricken be fewer diseases and, it was assumed, continue their habit for years to come. But when his research also showed that nicotine was an addictive drug--much like heroin or cocaine--that was too much for the powers that be: right before the studies were to be published in reputable journal, DeNoble found out that not only was his lab and all of the research were being shut down but that he and his fellow scientists were being fired.

When Congress and the Clinton White House geared up for a round of hearings and meetings to determine the severity of cigarettes on people’s health, it fell to DeNoble--despite a confidentiality agreement he signed--to expose the tactics of Big Tobacco as a cynical attempt to cash in on its customers’ addictions.

Evans’ journalistic expose’ is similar to recent documentaries like the Oscar-winning Inside Job--about the Wall Street scandals that brought the world’s economy to its knees--in its reliance on solid reporting and a myriad of talking heads to chronicle malfeasance on a grand scale. Much of the information laid out in Addiction Incorporated is not new, but Evans binds it together in a tight, taut package that brings many opportunities for viewers to shake their heads in disbelief watching how profit-first corporations treat--or mistreat--consumers.

The terse accumulation of evidence includes eye-openers like showing how billion-dollar companies take care of their own: the ABC television network ended up blinking after tobacco giant Philip Morris filed a multi-billion dollar lawsuit against ABC for a 1995 Nightline expose, having Diane Sawyer apologize on-air for what was essentially a difference of opinion.

There are missteps. It seems that Evans thought that 100 minutes of talking heads and footage of congressional hearings would become repetitious and redundant, and so succumbs to the current “re-enactment mania.” In the hands of Errol Morris, whose The Thin Blue Line became unbearably tense due to his detached re-enactments of events surrounding a police officer’s murder, it’s way to display nuances that interviews can’t. But in other cases (all History Channel specials and here), re-enactments simply get in the way: this isn’t the Watergate break-in being discussing, it’s the laying out of a mountain of evidence--and showing researchers in the lab doesn‘t bring anything of substance to Evans‘ truth-telling. (Similarly, lighthearted use of animated rats--subjects of DeNoble’s nicotine testing--blissfully reacting to the drug--is cute but unnecessary.)

While people may be understandably cynical over the marriage of government and big business--indeed, a federal judge recently blocked new FDA warnings on cigarette packages as something that would inhibit tobacco companies’ “free speech”--Addiction Incorporated can be seen as both corrective and cautionary tale about the fallout when big business calls its own shots, even in what should be an ethically neutral area as scientific discovery.

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