No one grows up with the aspirations of becoming a drug addict. Yet, for countless individuals across the United States, that nightmare morphs into a reality, an eternal consequence arising from a moment of weakness. While “How to Fix a Drug Scandal” examines the motivation that invokes addiction from the vantage point of a legal documentary, the film’s heart remains rooted in an intimate analysis of how an individual’s personal choices can affect the lives of thousands.
Regarded as the overlooked cogs embedded within the convoluted machine that perpetuates the war on drugs in the United States, drug lab chemists—who are responsible for testing and qualifying contraband—play an essential role in the conviction of those arrested on narcotics-related crimes. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the day-to-day operation of these drug lab chemists, which primarily consists of endless paperwork and mind-numbing routines, is about as spicy as it sounds.
Nevertheless, every once in a crystal blue moon, at least one Sonja Farak will pop up. After the 35-year-old chemist is arrested for tampering with evidence, Farak is thrown into the spotlight, an event that unearths her decade-long battle with crack cocaine and methamphetamine addiction, which was kickstarted by abusing the illegal substances readily at her disposal. Soon after, Annie Dookhan, another Massachusetts drug lab chemist, is accused of falsifying tests, indicating that thousands charged with drug-related misdemeanors might be locked up for nothing. In the wake of these arrests, a handful of defense attorneys discover a cover-up scheme that threatens to uproot the entire U.S. criminal justice system. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the magic of Netflix documentaries.
Boasting an intricate narrative centered around courtroom proceedings and complex women, Erin Lee Carr was practically born to helm the project; the director’s filmography over the past half-decade encompasses some of the most intriguing true-crime documentaries to hit the market as of late, with “Mommy Dead and Dearest” and “I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter” ranking as two highlights. Separated into four episodes, three of which clock in just shy of an hour, “How to Fix a Drug Scandal” works best when consumed in one sitting. Apart from the second entry, which guts the mini-series’ pacing enough to leave a sour aftertaste, the momentum keeps viewers on their toes, anticipating the moment when justice is finally served—if it will ever be served at all.
Equipped with an adult sensibility and an abundance of worthwhile conversation starters, Carr’s investigative Netflix Original removes itself from the sparkly melodrama of “Miss Americana” or the jaw-dropping, internet-noir surrealism of “Don’t F**k with Cats” by methodically slicing away at the biases surrounding addiction and fixating on the irreparable defects within the criminal justice system in the United States. “How to Fix a Drug Scandal” provokes dejected frustration and agitated awe in equal strides by showcasing the flawed humanity of those dedicated to upholding the law as well as those trapped beneath it.
Unfortunately, as opposed to its Netflix Original counterparts—if you have yet to watch “Don’t F**k With Cats,” it is fantastic—or ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, which spawned the game-changing “O.J.: Made in America,” a documentary such as “How to Fix a Drug Scandal,” although exemplary in its efforts, cannot stand toe-to-toe with the competition; its presentation, while enlightening, tastes stale and comes across as old-fashioned at points. For a film looking to combat the effigy of a perfect nation, “How to Fix a Drug Scandal” needed razor-sharp claws and a soul-shaking bark; but its final presentation is too sterile and toothless to impart an unforgettable impression. By balancing a portrait of destructive habits with the shattered foundation of justice in the United States, a center point endures unestablished, transforming the four-part series into a surface-level information dump.
As opposed to comparable true-crime documentaries that warrant a story pieced together over the span of multiple entries, “How to Fix a Drug Scandal” would have benefited from a significant reduction in runtime. Trimming the doc from four parts down to a single 120-minute or three-hour film solves the recurring issue of repetition, forces loose plot threads to coagulate and injects a sense of urgency. Figuratively speaking, “How to Fix a Drug Scandal” emanates the vibe of a brilliant essay stuck in the first draft stage; the genius of the author and the topic alike remain apparent, but typos, meandering sentences, and overstepping the designated word count clearly indicate the necessity for second-draft amendments and the work of a shrewd editor.
Nonetheless, in spite of its lethargic demeanor and tiresome structure, “How to Fix a Drug Scandal” justifies at least one attentive viewing if only to witness the marvelous perseverance of the defense attorneys—genuine heroes—determined to enact change despite facing insurmountable opposition over the span of years. Likewise, both the attorneys and Carr warrant all the acclaim in the world for refusing to sit back and let unfairness wash away the truth, and in the midst of a culture growing more indifferent by the day, witnessing justice triumph over corruption cannot help but put a smile on your face. [C+]