LAFF 2016 Review: Dr. Feelgood

Written by Kristen Lopez

The first rule of the Hippocratic oath can be recited by those without a medical degree: First, do no harm. But in a world where nearly all problems can be fixed, or at least sated, with the help of a pill, questions crop up as to whether the cure is as bad as the disease. The recent death of Prince through opioid overdose only makes Eve Marson’s documentary, Dr. Feelgood, tragically timelier.

Dr. Feelgood tells the tale of Virginia doctor William Hurwitz, accused of overprescribing opioid medications to his patients who see him as an angel of mercy.

Audiences first introductions to Hurwitz are the wildly different descriptions of him touting him as an angel of death who deserves to be “fried,” to the man who saved lives and helped people live with chronic pain. If all that separates a drug pusher, as one of the talking heads details, is the MD at the end of their name, where does Hurwitz fall? Marson’s documentary refuses to take sides, instead baldly laying out the facts and leaving the viewer to decide.

Having endured surgeries and pain in my life, watching Dr. Feelgood is both eye-opening and terrifying. Much of the film is made up of exploring the rise of opioid abuse in our country, starting with a medical report claiming that opioids solved chronic pain issues with no limits, if a dose doesn’t work…just up it. Said report was eventually contradicted, but not before drugs like Oxycontin were being ripped out of pharmacies by burglars and Percocets were being prescribed for minor injuries. It’s tough, because as everyone says, the doctor is reliant on believing that a person is in pain; there’s no way of knowing who is drug-seeking or will eventually abuse medication but does that absolve Hurwitz of giving a patient 81,000 pills in 19 months?

Telling two stories concurrently – both of Hurwitz’s individual operation and the growing abuse of opioids in the US – it leads the audience to question how much power Hurwitz wielded? Was opioid addiction rising because of him or he was he just part of the trend? Scenes of people robbing pharmacies in Virginia alongside talking heads detailing the good doctor’s practices imply as he was a main instigator. When Hurwitz’s license is threatened with revocation several patients killed themselves. Were these the cries of junkies fearing they’d lose their fix? Or patients unwilling to be left in pain? Marson refuses to give answers, and the individual viewer might feel differently from my own personal interpretations.

But that is why the words of the patients are so important, and no one’s story is the same – you have to give it up to Marson for finding so many nuanced opinions on the subject. Hurwitz’s various patients range from those who believe him to have saved their lives, and allowed them to leave a world of constant pain, while others maintain he either knowingly fueled their addiction and/or was responsible for drug-related deaths of loved ones. As for Hurwitz himself, the man is a blank slate. Is he the loveable fool, as his wife claims, unable to see the bad in people? A man so consumed by greed he’d prescribe pills just for the office visits? Or someone who enjoyed the game of drug dealing – as evidenced by his comments, unknowingly recorded by a patient.

Marson’s hands-off approach does leave Hurwitz as more of a figurehead than anything else. He’s used to open the door to a grander issue, and Marson softballs questions to him from time to time. She also never interrogates the nurse openly revealed to have participated in the conversation Hurwitz was recorded on, thus implicating herself in his schemes. Because Marson wants audiences to decide on their own, there’s no need for her to play prosecutor, but it also leaves the presentation of Hurwitz rather tame; he’s never taken to the mat for anything.

There will probably always be “Dr. Feelgoods” so long as people take medications. Eve Marson’s documentary casts a bright light on a topic that’s become accepted in today’s day and age which demands attention.

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