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‘The Crime of the Century’ lays bare who cashed in from the opioid epidemic

The title “The Crime of the Century” serves multiple purposes in director Alex Gibney’s HBO documentary, highlighting the criminality associated with an opioid epidemic that has dragged on throughout this century. While the focus is on Purdue Pharma and the family behind it, the four-hour project spreads the blame, building on existing reporting with “secret documents and never-before-released depositions.”

Adding to his dizzying output over the past year, Gibney — whose recent HBO productions include “Totally Under Control,” “Agents of Chaos” and “Crazy, Not Insane” — outlines the “spectacular crime” at the foundation of the crisis, including the way doctors were steered, prodded and in some cases bribed to prescribe opioids, and politicians influenced (in concert with hefty donations) to protect the industry.

Presented in association with the Washington Post, whose reporters are prominently featured, “Crime of the Century” at times plays like a glossy thriller. At the core of that sits the Sackler family, the proprietors of OxyContin maker Purdue, who have been spared prosecution despite a 2007 settlement in which the company agreed to pay a $600 million fine — an outcome that Gibney (who also narrates the piece) describes as “the illusion of justice.”

The interviews include a sales rep who expressed concern about over-prescribing the drugs recalling being told, “It’s not your job to be a policeman.” Yet policing — in the form of government regulation — was also swayed against taking action, with some later becoming lobbyists and advocates for companies that they had investigated.

As scientists interviewed note, the drugs themselves were designed principally to ease discomfort associated with end-of-life care, but companies realized the market would be far larger if opioids were prescribed for all kinds of pain.

The devastating consequences of that are illustrated via testimonials about the horrors of OxyContin addiction, sometimes related by loved ones left behind. Other notable voices include West Virginia doctor Art Van Zee, who pushed back against the drug companies; and Dr. Lynn Webster, whose Life Tree Pain Clinic — representing another business that flourished during the epidemic — was associated with multiple patient overdose deaths.

Several familiar faces pop up, including Rudy Giuliani, who was hired to advocate on Purdue’s behalf in the mid-2000s, when the company faced a federal investigation.

The second half focuses heavily on former DEA official Joseph Rannazzisi; and Alec Burlakoff, a top salesman at Insys Therapeutics who pleaded guilty to bribing doctors. Burlakoff also recruited a former stripper, Sunrise Lee, to join the company, with their interviews in essence representing the foot soldiers swept up by these schemes.

The Sacklers, meanwhile, withdrew billions from Purdue, which declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2019. The previously unseen depositions include one with CEO Richard Sackler, in a 2015 lawsuit brought by Kentucky, one of several states that reached multimillion-dollar settlements with the company.

As Gibney puts it, the truly awful aspect of the opioid crisis is that it was “manufactured,” dispensing 100 billion pills between 2006 and 2014. “Did the companies really think that all those pills were for back pain?” Gibney asks.

The question lingers, as do the consequences suffered — and just as significantly, avoided — in conjunction with “The Crime of the Century.”

“Crime of the Century” will air May 10-11 at 9 p.m. on HBO, which, like CNN, is a unit of WarnerMedia.

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