Adam McKay-produced documentary follows a lawyer taking major pharmaceutical companies to court

As a society, we certainly aren’t lacking for villains. Most of these villains are self-made: politicians, cantankerous celebrities, and other assorted public figures. Some rightfully deserve our scorn and others, well, it depends on who you ask. One of the few common enemies we can agree on forms the basis of director Brendan FitzGerald and co-director Nick August-Perna’s slickly produced documentary The Oxy Kingpins. It’s a tightly packed ball of anger, one of many in a nation that has been devastated by the ongoing opioid epidemic that has gripped the nation for the last two decades. Most of the stories about it have been about personal and societal tragedies, with few glimmers of hope.

The Oxy Kingpins is more of a mirage. It tells the story of a lawyer’s attempts to hold Big Pharma accountable for their role in the epidemic. A noble endeavor, indeed, but one that plays out less provocatively than a title like The Oxy Kingpins implies. Still, any story that details the complicity and culpability of the pharmaceutical industry is a story worth telling. For The Oxy Kingpins, that means following the lawyer leading the way on a major lawsuit, Mike Papantonio. Papantonio, who garnered the nickname “America’s Lawyer” through his legal prowess and his radio and writing work, is a calming presence in the documentary. His even-keeled demeanor is simultaneously calming and unnerving, as the facts of the case are enraging.

There’s a sense of futility that sets in as the slowness of the legal process plays out on screen. The Oxy Kingpins is only about 90 minutes long, but it’s enough to convey the inevitability that the people responsible for the opioid crisis are going to get off far lighter than the communities ravaged by their abdication of morality. That much is pretty obvious. The Oxy Kingpins also features interviews with a few people on the bottom end of the drug trade: a former drug dealer who is helping Mike build his case, and a recovering addict. These interviews prove to be the strongest parts of the documentary as it speaks to the very real human cost of the epidemic. Perhaps the strongest argument made in this documentary is how it demonstrates the core principle of trickle down economics: money flows up to the wealthy while pain and devastation trickle down. FitzGerald closes the film with text that reiterates this, describing the massive number of pills and deaths in the country, and how at each rung up the drug chain the number of people being held accountable and their consequences both dwindle.

The Oxy Kingpins reminded me of the Netflix miniseries The Pharmacist, which tells the story of one man who set out to get justice for his murdered son and ended up helping take down OxyContin suppliers in his hometown. Both stories highlight how pervasive the opioid epidemic is and how, sometimes, all we can do is fight the good fight in any way we can.

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