The baroque depths of the tobacco industry’s insidiousness notwithstanding, exposés have been telling the same unsurprising story for the last 10 years—namely, that cigarette companies not only knew how harmful and addicting their products were, but that they often used science to manipulate these deleterious properties for the greatest financial benefit possible. Perhaps anticipating audience fatigue with such scandals, em>Addiction Incorporated’s opening half doesn’t even pretend to have exclusive, explosive information that hasn’t already been burned down to an ashen stub. The film instead takes the far more thankless approach of patiently unspooling the story of unsung whistleblower Victor DeNoble, an awkward, dyslexic nerd who, after accepting a job offer from Philip Morris’s lab in the early ‘80s while wasting away in post-doc poverty, stumbled upon the chemical relationship that ensures smoking’s habit-forming nature.
Testimony from DeNoble and other pharmacologists forms the quirky, hyper-specific backbone of the documentary’s first act, an essayistic profile on nicotine study peppered with delightfully irrelevant personal anecdotes (DeNoble befriended one fellow technician after unknowingly stealing his favorite pencil) and trippy cartoons illustrating the substance’s effect on the brain. In the liveliest of the latter, an anthropomorphic, Don Bluth-esque rat resembling Huck Finn floats down a CGI river while the heavens distribute drug bubbles whenever he pushes a tiny metal prong at the edge of his raft. These images don’t necessarily make the scientific discoveries of DeNoble and his crew any more accessible, but they do playfully observe the manner in which tobacco, despite its waning popularity, has crept into Americana’s most enduring tropes. About halfway through the film, however, Philip Morris forces DeNoble to withdraw a groundbreaking paper slated for publication in a prestigious scientific journal that summarizes his findings—an event that DeNoble endearingly refers to as “the worst scientific day of my life.” From there, the documentary’s focus shifts from furtive research to the well-storied industry litigation a decade later, and its nearly surreal, personal touch begins to fade.
Director Charles Evans Jr. manages rather deftly to juggle four distinct categories of talking heads—scientists, lawyers, government agents, and tobacco-industry insiders—through the legal melee with slight lighting and background changes that underscore inherent differences between the men. But the most dramatic material, such as DeNoble’s much-applauded congressional testimony, more or less traffics common knowledge without bothering to provide fresh emotional context. (DeNoble’s decision to come forward in court after years of timidity seems arbitrary and abrupt, and he only briefly glosses the moral convictions behind that choice.) After the film tethers its narrative to the class action suit against Big Five Tobacco, it can’t help but totter into anti-climax. DeNoble’s appearance in the epilogue, where he explains and discourages against addiction to an enthralled group of elementary school students, suggests that following the internal journey of this tangential character more doggedly would have informed a more singular, if somewhat less coherent, film.