On American Thanksgiving, we can gaze on our neighbours while they are distracted with their traditional doings. What makes our two countries different, apart from having Thanksgiving on different dates? The answer, always, is health care.
In new documentary Pharma Bro, a young man smirks at the camera and says, “Go to another country if you want free health care! Go to Canada!” He’s Martin Shkreli, who was for a time either “the most hated man in America” (according to CNBC) or “possibly the world” (said the U.K.’s the Independent).
Pharma Bro (streaming on Amazon Prime Video) is about the guy who, when he was the head of Turing Pharmaceuticals, raised the price of the drug Daraprim – used to treat toxoplasmosis and other infections in AIDS patients and others with compromised immune systems – from US$13.50 a pill to US$750 a pill. That astronomical increase made a lot of people very angry. Shkreli became the poster boy for pharma-greed and then he ran with it, his smirking face becoming ubiquitous on TV and especially online. He ran his own webstream, projecting himself and his strangely smug persona out there for everyone to see.
The documentary is an odd concoction. This is not his life story, with a rise and fall. (He’s currently in jail after being convicted of securities fraud.) Filmmaker Brent Hodge set himself the task of trying to reveal and understand the villain aspect of his subject. He even moved into an apartment in the building Shkreli lived in, and acted as any neighbour might, with occasional chats. All the while, Hodge was trying to get beneath the surface, even as Shkreli became evermore notorious and hated.
The filmmaker’s first instinct is to see this “Pharma Bro” as someone who embraced the persona of comic-book villain. He talks to people who study comics and, sure, there’s some validity to the point of view. Most comic-book bad guys want the world to know they are the evil mastermind – they don’t hide.
Shkreli hid nothing. The antiparasitic drug Daraprim, used mainly for patients with HIV/AIDS, suddenly became out of reach for many – and he gloried in his perfectly legal use of drug regulations to gouge people. “I’m a normal dude – the money’s stacking up,” he said on his webcast. He told interviewers his only regret was that he didn’t set the price even higher. One issue that arises, which isn’t handled well in the film at all, is the fact that few people with HIV were willing to be public about their new dilemma. But one thing that does emerge with clarity is the fact that Shkreli is the U.S. system personified. He committed no crime when he deprived patients of a much-needed drug.
The crime that emerged was in Shkreli’s past as a hedge-fund manager. He had essentially been operating a Ponzi scheme. He was charged, tried and found guilty of several of the charges against him.
The meat of the documentary is Hodge following closely as his subject revelled in it all. One of Shkreli’s friends, a 500-pound rapper known as “Billy the Fridge,” explains that Martin is just messing with people’s heads. There is also the matter of the album by hip hop group Wu-Tang Clan that was limited to a single copy, as a sort of performance-art provocation – Shkreli bought it, making him the sole owner, and the biggest, brattiest jerk of all.
It’s when the doc pays attention to the women in Shkreli’s life that a truly sinister figure emerges, not a wannabe villain. Some women liked him a lot. But Shkreli later became notorious for the online stalking of one of Teen Vogue’s editors – among other incidents – which got him kicked off Twitter.
The strangest, most unnerving twist comes near the end. One of the recurring voices in the film is that of Christie Smythe, a former Bloomberg News reporter who wrote extensively about Shkreli. She seems to understand something elusive about him. Then it’s revealed that Smythe had fallen in love with Shkreli and was abandoning her marriage for the imprisoned guy. His sway over her illuminates more about “Pharma Bro” the person than most of what has gone before. What the doc doesn’t tell you is what happened after Smythe went public with her devotion and how Shkreli reacted.
There isn’t enough in the film about the issue of drug pricing – but it says enough to underline the difference between us here in Canada, and our neighbours to the south.
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