Our Score: 4 out of 5 stars
“Off Label”, a new documentary from Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher, draws its power from getting personal with those most affected by the pharmaceutical industry’s usage of humans as guinea pigs. For some, it’s a financial choice, while for others it’s as a last ditch effort when other means have failed them.
With subjects spanning across the country, some of the most devastating accounts come from Andy Duffy, a 22-year-old army medic stricken with PTSD from being stationed at Abu Gharib, and Mary Weiss, the mother of a man who killed himself while in a medical study. At 17, Duffy could not believe that he was being deployed as a medic to one of the war’s most notorious locations and Off Label’s directors rightly make no effort to shield its viewers from the horrors he faced there. Understandably Duffy returned to the country in a real need of psychiatric help. What he found was doctors giving him a plethora of medications for various symptoms and off label prescriptions that fit under their medical plan better than more expensive, perhaps more appropriate, drugs. They’re basically throwing anything at him to see what works. In any case, Duffy is the not the only interviewee who presents a massive stock pile of little orange pill bottles in this doc and that’s the trouble. “I don’t need medication. I need help,” Duffy says. This loss of humanity in the search for the most effective drug mixture is at the heart of the problem examined in the doc. Duffy ultimately turns to other war veterans for more effective support, but other subjects lack such groups.
For me, the film’s most powerful figure is Mary Weiss. Weiss committed her 26-year-old son, Dan Markingson, for psychiatric help. Though he was committed, his personal consent to be put into a closed clinical study for anti-psychotics was irreversible by Weiss as he was not a minor. What resulted was Weiss being incapable of pulling her son from the drug study even though she could tell he was much worse off and eventually he committed a grisly suicide. Weiss became dedicated to fighting corruption within the drug testing system and in the film she is a striking and passionate interviewee. When she speaks to the filmmakers she is composed but the rage she has felt since losing Dan is palpable. Her account of her son’s death is haunting and I suspect will have many viewers rally to her cause. She is truly remarkable.
To counter the stories of those directly affected by prescription abuses, Palmieri and Mosher have also smartly included an ex-pharmaceutical rep, Michael Oldani, to detail the mechanics of getting various drugs into the public’s minds. Reflecting on his past occupation, Oldani dubs the role of drug reps as shady and some of the tactics he reveals to get a patient to prefer one drug over another are eye opening in their simplicity.
Besides Weiss’ fight, Off Label isn’t so much about directly confronting the rampant drug marketing in the United States as examining the human cost of such a culture. Beautifully shot footage of each of their interviewees in their day to day lives—Duffy practicing with his rifle, two of the “human guinea-pigs” celebrating an unconventional wedding— contribute to an intimate look at a massive problem.