Gun control. The right to choose. Donald Trump.
Now turn to your right and punch the person next to you.
Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe, the documentary that was noisily pulled from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival by Robert De Niro himself, is now billing itself as “the most controversial film in America.” If you don’t know the background of the documentary’s director, Andrew Wakefield, though, you may not understand why.
Here’s the dirt: Wakefield, a British former surgeon and researcher, along with 11 co-authors published a study in 1998 whose results appeared to show a link between autism and the combination vaccine that very young children receive for measles, mumps, and rubella, known as the MMR. (It should be noted that De Niro has an autistic child.) A general mess ensued, involving allegations that Wakefield was being paid by lawyers representing parents of children diagnosed with autism. So in 2004, the scientific journal that published the study, The Lancet, partially retracted the findings, and after an ethics investigation by the U.K.’s General Medical Council that did not end favorably for Wakefield, published a full retraction, leaving the doctor excommunicated from the medical community.
But who needs haughty academic journals when you can just put your soapbox in a movie?
Vaxxed doesn’t focus on Wakefield’s shunning,— though he gives plenty of commentary onscreen—but our country’s own Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also allegedly fraudulent. Its researchers, too, reportedly found a link between MMR shots and autism—which the public would never have known about had it not been for one of the study’s researchers blowing the whistle in 2014, delicately dancing around nondisclosure agreements to bring proof of the CDC’s altered results to light.
Granted, if a viewer chose not to wade too deeply in the muck, Vaxxed is quite convincing. It offers so many statistics, so many talking heads, and, most important, so many parents telling the same story: that their child received the MMR vaccine and then changed, often overnight. The children lost their language, their ability to walk, their personalities.
It’s heartbreaking—and you’d have to be quite the cynic to believe that these people had any motive to lie. The highly salaried white collars that are brought up here, though, are a different story. And that’s what makes the vaccination issue—at least as posed by the film—so difficult to untangle. Pockets have allegedly been lined by Big Pharma; one very important detail about Wakefield’s research is that it wasn’t anti-vaccine, just anti-MMR. (As one father pointed out, eliminating vaccines would throw us “into the Dark Ages.”) Using single shots for each disease seemed to be safe, he said.
But then Merck would lose money on its profitable MMR program. And though the CDC can’t itself accept donations, it is allowed to set up foundations that do. Its biggest contributors, it turns out, are recognizable names—but the names don’t belong to people.
Throughout the film, Wakefield wrings every gasp he can out of the audience. As commentators respond to the goings-on—calling them, say, “unethical, vile things”—the director puts the words in text onscreen, floating a few seconds for maximum effect. A former congressman calls the CDC situation “a very, very, very disturbing revelation” and a “horrible, horrible development.” A journalist says, “Here’s what’s really scary” about an hour in, after we’ve heard 60 minutes of already scary stuff.
But what should really make you question the validity of the film as a whole is the appearance of Penn & Teller (?), with Penn, in regard to claims that the vaccine causes 1 in 110 children to develop autism, saying: “Fuck that. Total bullshit. It doesn’t.” Um, OK then?
I’m no doctor, but I’d suggest that if you really want to get to the bottom of the potential epidemic portrayed in Vaxxed, you do some investigating yourself—as opposed to, you know, taking medical advice from a movie with magicians in it.
Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe opens today at Angelika Pop-Up.