Burzynski is earnest, impassioned, and doggedly principled. You know from the opening text that filmmaker Eric Merola is aiming for more than cash or entertainment value or even critical kudos: He’s after government reform. This picture is one of those documentaries, like Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father, that one could be tempted to overrate for the infuriating, relevant subject matter alone, except the approach is so clumsy, blunt, and consistently un-cinematic.
The title refers to Stanislaw Burzynski, a Texas biochemist who discovered a gene treatment in the 1970s called “antineoplastons” that became instrumental to treating cancers generally regarded as death sentences. The antineoplastons, initially seen as a joke by many of Burzynski’s peers (it’s taken from healthy human urine) revitalizes dormant, dysfunctional genes, essentially encouraging the body to cure itself without the questionable side effects of conventionally accepted (i.e. most bureaucratically profitable) treatments such as chemo.
The first half hour is undeniably affecting—parents crying over dead children always will be—and one respects Merola’s devotion to information in this age of the documentary as glorified first person op-ed: His footage of Burzynski’s patients, primarily taken from court testimonies, lacks the disturbingly exploitive near-glee of capturing the moment that can be found in a Michael Moore picture. But Merola also, logically given the last sentence, lacks Moore’s daring flair; Moore’s bad taste is the source of his vitality, an egotistical “ends justify the means” deviousness that gives his pictures energy, and that reveals them as the creations of a problematic-but-undeniable filmmaker/agitator. There isn’t anything in Burzysnki that one associates with the work of a real artist.
Merola has let his understandable outrage over the casualties of bureaucratic nonsense run away with him: the picture is a long harangue that doesn’t deepen our understanding of the sort of casual corruption and hypocrisy that allows the FDA to publicly prosecute a doctor they also happen to be funding on the sidelines in unpublicized experiments. Merola squanders the sympathy he builds in the opening scenes, spending the remaining hour and change alternating between interviews with the sad, charismatic Burzynski and friends and various letter correspondences between Burzynski, pharmaceutical companies, and the FDA. The letters, which incriminate themselves (the Texas and Federal governments trying to outlaw something until they can profit from it themselves), are performed in amateurishly editorializing read-alongs that highlight points for us that are already literally highlighted. It’s essentially a book on tape.
There’s another issue: The picture is so aggressively pro-Burzynski that your suspicions begin to stir. I have little problem accepting the FDA as the labyrinth of contradiction, corruption, and hypocrisy that Merola is asserting (Burzynski could be taken, in a roundabout way, as a companion piece to the considerably more effective book Fast Food Nation and doc Food, Inc.), but he would have done well to follow the Moore/Schlosser/Pollan model and at least allow the figureheads the opportunity to incriminate themselves. I have no doubt that Merola tried that very tack with little to show for it (he isn’t, after all, a Moore or a Schlosser or a Pollan), but even an acknowledgement of those hurdles would add friction, a wrinkle, something that testifies to the contradiction and elusiveness of even the most seemingly painful, right-and-wrong, cut-and-dried struggle—something that allows for actual drama. As it is, Burzynski is the kind of should’ve-been-important picture that you damn with the faintest praise: It means well.