Netflix’s ‘Painkiller’ Is Based On True Story Of Richard Sackler & His Drug ‘OxyContin’


Painkiller, directed by Peter Berg, is the story of how Purdue Pharma brought an opioid epidemic to the United States. It is strange and scary how an entire country gradually became addicted to prescribed drugs, while the entire medical community just stood there as bystanders and witnessed the devastation that they were responsible for. We have often seen that when morals and values come into conflict with the power of money; it is the latter that supersedes everything else.

The opioid epidemic was a story of corruption, medical negligence, fraud, and deceit, and where one family-owned pharmaceutical company created a turnover of billions, hundreds of families experienced bereavement like they could have never imagined. From what we perceive from the trailer and things we have come across through various articles published in tabloids, we can say that Richard Sackler knew about the consequences of his actions, but still, he kept on going, totally disregarding the lives of the common people of his nation. We are assuming that the medical society would have eventually realized that the drug named OxyContin, which was created by Purdue Pharma, was susceptible to abuse, but the general public was still misled to the point that hundreds of people started dying because of it. The Netflix series is based on an article published in the New Yorker and a book written by Barry Meier.

Uzo Aduba plays the character of Edie Flowers, a lawyer who makes it the mission of her life to find out who was actually responsible for the epidemic. As we see in the trailer, Edie probably gets to know that Purdue Pharma knew exactly what they were selling but still chose to hide information and mislead the general public. The truth hits the lawyer hard, and she does not understand how someone could be so soaked in greed that they actually don’t care about the cost at which they are making profits for themselves. Edie looks like a woman with a conscience, and it wouldn’t have been hard for her to understand how such a scam, on such a large scale, was being run by the pharmaceutical company. There was huge money involved, and we are presuming that from the sales representative to the doctors, everybody was bought by Purdue Pharma.

Richard Sackler, or whoever was at the helm of affairs and was making decisions, kept things very simple, and they knew that they just had to understand the concept of pain and pleasure and how human behavior is governed by these two things. The Sackler family knew that if they could sell the fact that anybody experiencing pain could smoothly transition into a state where they felt nothing but pleasure with their opioid, then they could make unimaginable amounts of money. They were absolutely right, as it didn’t take long for oxycontin to become the number one opioid in the country, and the irony was that they were proud of it as if they had achieved something great. A drug that was probably much stronger than morphine was being written into millions of prescriptions by renowned medical practitioners all over the country. The doctors not only broke their oath, but they became co-conspirators in one of the deadliest scams in the country.

Anybody who has the faintest idea about how the system works knows this couldn’t have been possible without the doctors of the nations coming on board, no matter how much a pharma company pushed it. Richard Sackler knew how to bribe his way to success, and something that was causing deaths was being prescribed by the people who were entrusted with saving lives, and there couldn’t have been a bigger irony than this. It is to be noted that before Purdue Pharma came up with its revolutionary drug, medicines such as oxycontin were prescribed by doctors in the rarest of cases. Now Purdue Pharma needed to change this perception and culture, and that is why we see in the trailer for Painkiller that they launched an extensive marketing campaign where they brainwashed not only medical practitioners but also the general public.

A lot of young medical salespeople were employed under this marketing campaign, and they were asked to go from clinic to clinic and tell the doctors what they would be doing for the people and society in general if they helped them get rid of the excruciating pain which they would have been experiencing throughout their lives. There is a scene in the Painkiller trailer where the doctors and sales reps are compared to drug dealers, and we believe that it is a totally justified comparison. The only difference was that the drug dealers had to sell drugs secretly, whereas the doctors were openly prescribing them as if it was their moral duty to do so.

The opioid epidemic brings attention to another important topic, i.e., should pharmaceutical companies be allowed to advertise and promote prescribed drugs, and if the regulations that govern such practices should be more stringent. Oxytocin shouldn’t have become a household name, and apart from being backed by huge funding, the advertising campaign also played a key role in normalizing its usage. Advertising impacts people’s perceptions, and those who would have been skeptical about using the drug had become more assured after seeing everybody talk about it openly. They knew that if something was worthy of being telecast on television or put on big hoardings for everybody to see, then nothing was wrong with it.

As far as the Netflix series is concerned, we believe that we would get to see a battle of narratives where none of the parties would agree to drop their arms until the very last moment. We would see Purdue Pharma trying to sell their lie and tell the nations that the company had no prior knowledge about the fact that the drug could lead to an epidemic, and the Sackler family would try their best to see that individual liability does not fall on them. The others who were a part of the scam would try to justify their stance first to themselves, their own conscience, and then to society, and the ones like Edie Flowers would make sure that no one who was even remotely a part of it went unpunished. We don’t know how much creative liberty would be taken by Peter Berg and his team, but we hope that they stay true to the facts of the actual case and give us an unadulterated picture of the havoc the drug caused after it was introduced in the market in 1995.

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Sushrut Gopesh
Sushrut Gopesh
I came to Mumbai to bring characters to life. I like to dwell in the cinematic world and ponder over philosophical thoughts. I believe in the kind of cinema that not necessarily makes you laugh or cry but moves something inside you.

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