To filmmaker Gibney, opioid crisis is 'Crime of the Century'

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This image released by HBO shows a scene from the two-part documentary "Crime of the Century," about the opioid epidemic, premiering May 10. (HBO via AP)

NEW YORK – Not unexpectedly given the subject matter, HBO's two-part documentary “The Crime of the Century” opens with a body bag.

It contained a man from San Diego — his remains carried away in the predawn hours after overdosing on fentanyl — one of nearly a half million Americans to die from opioid abuse since 2001.

Filmmaker Alex Gibney quickly widens the lens, however, for an explanation of how the drugs that caused the crisis came to be, how companies aggressively promoted and distributed them and how the government failed to act swiftly and effectively to save lives.

The story is exhaustive and often sickening, its scope recalling the examinations Gibney and his team have given in the past to Enron, to Scientology and, most recently, to the Trump administration's response to COVID-19. “The Crime of the Century” will be shown Monday and Tuesday.

“I felt that the whole idea of the crisis was being treated as if it were a spontaneous event that just couldn't have been helped,” Gibney said. “What was missing was the element of crime, in particular the sort of broad, over-arching conspiracy.”

If you put everything together, “it's almost like a murder mystery,” he said. “In some way, it is a murder mystery.”

The role of the Sackler family and their company, Purdue Pharma, in developing the prescription painkiller OxyContin is familiar territory. Gibney's film digs into the aftermath, including the push to get doctors to overprescribe the medication and the company's use of former government regulators to cripple serious oversight.

A former Purdue Pharma salesman, Mark Ross, tells how he got involved to make some money and help people with chronic pain. But when he grew concerned about abuses, his bosses told him to stay in his lane.