It’s doubtful that “Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe” would be playing in Washington — or anywhere — were it not for the controversy that briefly flared up around the film, when Robert De Niro personally programmed the documentary linking autism to vaccination into his Tribeca Film Festival in March. Breaking protocol, De Niro requested that the film be shown, saying that he hoped the movie would generate “conversation around an issue that is deeply personal to me and my family.” (De Niro and his wife have an autistic son.)
Less than a week later, the film was abruptly pulled after the actor and festival founder announced that he had reviewed it with members of the scientific community, concluding that it did not further that conversation.
That’s putting it mildly.
It’s hard to know which of the film’s many flaws to cite first, so here’s one thing it does fairly well: scare the bejesus out of you. That’s assuming you have read nothing about the subject of vaccines and autism, and are of a generally lax and incurious mind when it comes to the rigors of scientific inquiry. With the tone of a horror film, it presents before-and-after footage of several apparently healthy, developmentally normal children who, after receiving vaccinations, were said to have “regressed” — seemingly overnight — into profoundly disabled youngsters. The interviews with these children’s parents are heart-rending.
But there is much, much more that the film does badly — or not at all. Chief among these failures is one glaring omission. “Vaxxed” never mentions that the movie’s director and main on-camera “expert,” Andrew Wakefield, is a former gastroenterologist and researcher whose license to practice medicine in Britain was taken away in 2010. Neither does it say that the original 1998 study (of a mere 12 patients) suggesting a link between the combined measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and autism was later retracted by the journal that published it, which went on to accuse Wakefield of scientific fraud. Or that all of the study’s authors, save Wakefield, have subsequently disavowed its findings.
But to hear Wakefield talk — or to listen to the film’s producer, science journalist Del Bigtree, who competes with Wakefield for screen time — you get a very different picture. The film presents Wakefield as a lone, eminently reasonable crusader, tirelessly fighting a conspiracy of silence and manipulated data by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Evidence of this plot is either nonexistent or glancingly addressed, in close-up shots of documents that disappear before you have a chance to read what they say. Although slickly made, “Vaxxed” has a real problem delivering its data-heavy arguments in easily digestible ways. Like a commercial for acid indigestion pills featuring an actor in a white lab coat in front of some charts, it looks scientific — from a distance.
The ace-in-the-hole of “Vaxxed” is presumably CDC researcher William Thompson. Thompson never appears on camera, but we are treated to extensive, yet highly edited recordings of his voice — made without his knowledge, as the filmmakers admit, in a rare example of full disclosure. In these recordings, Thompson seems to be alleging that the CDC team that looked into the autism-vaccination link — and found none — cooked the books containing their findings. All this, presumably, took place at the behest of Big Pharma, which has a vested financial interest in continuing to sell dangerous vaccines to an unsuspecting public.
It’s hard to know what to make of Thompson, given that his participation in the film is involuntary, and his otherwise public silence.
Not so silent is the chorus of denunciation that has greeted “Vaxxed” in the scientific community, which has broadly and repeatedly repudiated the film’s claims. The single nod to balance in the film is the inclusion of two initially pro-vaccine pediatricians who, after seeming to peruse a stack of documents, express reservations about vaccine safety.
No medicine, even aspirin, is without risk. But “Vaxxed” should come with a warning label: “May cause irrational anxiety, especially if taken with an empty head.”
Unrated. At Angelika Pop-Up at Union Market. Contains brief coarse language and some disturbing images. 91 minutes.