Like the new-age-y Wrenwood retreat inductees who populate the last act of Todd Haynes’s Safe, the doctors, naturopaths, chiropractors and
conspiracy theorists skeptics interviewed in Bobby Sheehan’s Doctored believe that we’re all wilting under the toxic influence of environmental, social, and, of course, industrial poisons, and it’s their duty to enlighten the masses. Never mind that the bulk of what’s argued is either reductive, misleading, or, perhaps most egregiously, exceedingly obvious to anybody who’s leafed through a newspaper in the last decade; more important to Sheehan and his panel of experts than complication or nuance is that we leave the film feeling properly galvanized.
To that end, Sheehan pulls out all the emotional stops, fallacious arguments be damned. Between ostensibly informed testimony and expository historical footage, Doctored trots out the Real People perceptibly affected by unnecessarily prescribed drugs, misdiagnosis from medical professionals, lack of access to alternative medicine, and, in the most galling case, a crippling addiction to antidepressants, each of these lost souls lingered over as their eyes well with tears and the music swells dramatically. Sheehan doesn’t just squander his objectivity, he drowns it out with bleating strings.
Which, to be fair, is maybe deliberate. One could argue that the AMA and Big Pharma, with their endless pockets and insurmountable lobbying power, have fought their battle against natural medicine, chiropractors, and any other voices of marginal dissent so unfairly for so long that the most effective response is necessarily one-sided. But if you’re appealing to the reason of the consumer, and if you intend to respect the intelligence of your audience, sacrificing intelligent debate for the sake of impassioned delivery reduces the intellectual substance of your arguments drastically. Doctored is thus left to flail ineffectually, straining to convert the skeptical but ending up, at best, doing little more than preaching to the choir. The decision to take one patient of chiropractic treatment, whose lack of success with conventional medicine drove him to seek what he initially perceived to be a radical alternative, and frame him as a kind of avatar for the audience as the film travels from one subject to the next, talking to lawyers and drug addicts and anybody else they can get him near, is a pretty thin method for drawing what often seem like unrelated subjects together into one coherent and cohesive whole.
Beginning with the AMA’s surreptitious attempts to torpedo the chiropractic profession, Doctored moves, far too rapidly and with little connective tissue, to an “exposé” of the manner in which doctors overprescribe pharmaceutical drugs, a brief investigation of the many ways in which doctors mislead and sometimes inadvertently harm their own patients, and, finally, a strange detour into how chemicals get into our food. How much of these disparate arguments are founded in fact at times seems beside the point; Doctored presents its arguments so overdramatically and with such an obvious desire to shock or otherwise manipulate that one can never fully appreciate or digest the information presented without feeling harassed into taking it all at face value. Part of the problem is that certain obvious facts about the way capitalist economies function are used as a springboard to produce conclusions that simply don’t follow, including a fallaciously reasoned case about pharmaceutical companies having a vested financial interest in convincing doctors to shuck their wares and keeping patients sick to retain a steady customer base. But even if what’s being presented is in and of itself shocking or eye-opening, isn’t edification alone a virtuous enough goal? Hammering points home with teary-eyed anecdotes and wild accusations is overkill, and it squashes the purity of the film’s best intentions.