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Has the onscreen “War on Drugs” evolved over the last 20 or 30 years? In the early 1990’s, there wasn’t much of a war at all. Audiences were little more than witnesses to an occupation of the urban landscape. Films like New Jack City focused on neighborhoods in cities rife with drugs and the collateral damage that took rocked the communities. But the initial campaigns were all about containment, keeping the scourge at bay. Later, a show like the HBO series The Wire even made the containment policy explicit. The plan within a police district in the show’s not so fictionalized version of Baltimore set out to “legalize” zones where drugs could be sold without police interference, in order to make sure the drugs themselves and the violence from turf wars would not spill over and adversely impact the civilians struggling to remain safe.

The “war” on the big screen shifted focus too. Still rooted in urban corridors, it now shone a spotlight on the unfortunate victims of drug abuse who weren’t merely from around the way. Steven Soderbergh’s Academy Award-winner Traffic (Best Director, Best Supporting Actor for Benicio Del Toro, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Film Editing), with its multi-story format, explored how drugs impacted suburban white kids and their families as well as investigating how lives were affected across the southern border, which meant that now something might actually get done, someone in a position of authority would step in. No longer were the faces of abuse anonymous and unreflective of the critical masses.

It is fascinating how many folks probably assumed the shift would result in action off-screen, in the real world. And maybe it did; just not in ways anticipated. Focusing on white kids exposed just how rampant the problem was and opened up new avenues of exploitation. Now we’re not simply concerned with the violence from the illegal markets, but the far more insidious nature of addiction to legalized pharmaceuticals. Illicit street gains vs multi-billion-dollar business with global potential.

This is where Crisis, the recent release from Nicholas Jarecki (Arbitrage) comes into play. Similar to Traffic, Crisis follows several fronts in this futile ongoing series of skirmishes on all-too familiar battlefields (bedrooms and hospitals, boardrooms and research facilities). Pharmaceutical studies at universities create multi-year grants and tenure track opportunities for administrators and professors willing to fudge data or back-up baseless claims of efficacy. Watching Dr. Tyrone Brower (Gary Oldman) host dinner parties where he gets to regale guests (like his associate Dean Talbot played by Greg Kinnear) with philosophical musings seeking to delineate the divide between ethics and the practical realities of the world is a textbook definition of privilege. Oldman expertly captures the perfect note of tweedy righteousness and the slow-burning anxiety as Brower’s crisis of conscience emerges later on.

And while that happens, we find ourselves privy to an undercover cop named Jake Kelly (Armie Hammer) working the borderlands – in this case, between Detroit and Canada. Kelly is a bit removed from the classroom case studies and laboratories on the university circuit, and yet somehow divorced from the brutality of more glorified hardcore drug violence of typical urban thrillers. Except for the fact that Kelly has a personal stake. He races between meetings with various governmental players and his somewhat murkier associates in the field and feverish attempts to keep track of his addicted sister Emmie (Lily-Rose Depp) who is nearly one of the lost causes. Hammer starts to disappear into his own square jaw and imposing figure, props that define him as yet another anonymous soldier adrift and alone.

The truly lost though are family members like Claire Reimann (Evangeline Lilly) whose son died from an overdose of legalized prescription drugs, which weren’t supposed to be addictive. She is lost, trying to find clues about the son she didn’t know as well as she thought. Addiction creates recklessness in users and those who love and mourn them.  Writer-director Jarecki knows better than to transform Claire into some kind of avenging angel, and Lilly makes us feel just how helpless this situation can truly be.

The stakes of this evolving war and the dramatic thrillers set within this landscape lacks a certain sense of urgency. This is not to say that the narrative threads and the characters therein don’t matter. They do. We hear snippets of news about court cases involving drug companies – and please acknowledge the intention behind referring to drug companies, rather than pharmaceutical companies. These are drugs and they are killing folks and laying waste to communities, especially in the Midwest.

But what is the loss that could truly frighten or alter the trajectory of Dr. Brower’s life? Would whistleblowing on big pharma result in him living a life on the run from their forces? Crisis is a thriller, but he’s not going to need the protection of Jason Bourne to keep nefarious interests away. At some point, the money and influence exerted by big pharma is such that they don’t even pay attention to the Dr. Browers of the world.

And things narrow from there. Kelly, his sister and Claire Reimann run around on the margins, believing they are the central figures of their stories. Maybe they are, but the utter and abject futility of their experiences define a certain kind of existential dread that stares all of us in the face every day. Does anything that we do matter?

Climate crisis. COVID as an ongoing crisis. Racism as our foundational crisis. Failing governments. No movement in the drug war as new fronts rise up. Cancel culture threatens to upend the social order. We all are swimming upstream against rising currents and crises.

Jarecki doesn’t pretend to offer solutions, but his film does reveal how lost we can all get in the mix. There is no endgame to rewrite our history. We are lost and those able to find themselves in these narratives are always the same pawns who just look like movie stars. And, in the end, that is why we should watch Crisis. To remind ourselves even though these crises will never end, the small victories mean someone lives to fight on.

(Currently available via Prime Video and Showtime / still releasing in international markets)

terrencetodd grade: B