There’s a lot of sad piano music and distressed parents in “Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe,” but next to nothing in terms of real science. Directed by Andrew Wakefield, the British former gastroenterologist responsible for the debunked theory linking vaccines with autism, “Vaxxed” amounts to a summary of his brash movement’s unfounded arguments. Inexplicably added to the Tribeca Film Festival lineup before getting dropped due to backlash, the movie would have fit better in a sidebar showcasing tone-deaf agitprop alongside the likes of Dinesh D’Souza’s gloomy “2016: Obama’s America” and Stephen K. Bannon’s hagiographic Sarah Palin clip show “The Undefeated.” But Wakefield’s self-aggrandizing approach walks a more troubling ethical line, pushing an outrageous agenda only evident to viewers willing to look beneath its paranoid surface.
Wakefield doesn’t just have a dog in this fight; he is the dog. In 1998, the erstwhile researcher published a paper targeting the MMR vaccine (measles, mumps and rubella) that positioned statistical connections between vaccinated children and autism cases. Scrutinized by the international medical community, his findings were so vehemently rejected that he was stripped of his medical license, but the damage was done. With vaccinations already shunned by religious communities and parents distrustful of medical practices they don’t understand, Wakefield’s claims provided just the right volume of fear-mongering to kickstart a movement.
Shifting between media reports and a handful of anti-vaccine activists — including, naturally, a straight-faced Wakefield himself — “Vaxxed” makes epic conspiratorial claims, with the Center for Disease Control (CDC) emerging as its greatest target. Proclaiming that the organization has buried connections between autism and vaccines, “Vaxxed” presents a series of secretly recorded phone calls as its main coup. These conversations, between environmental researcher Brian Hooker and CDC “whistleblower” William Thompson, were previously summarized in a short video that Wakefield circulated last year. Since then, they have led to a book-length set of allegations and countless speculation about how much information the calls actually reveal. In the snippets shown throughout the movie, they hint at some modicum of disorganization to the CDC’s research, but hardly validate the outlandish claims at the root of Wakefield’s studies, which have themselves been suspected of biased reporting tactics. Needless to say, he’s not the most credible person to helm a supportive overview.
Nevertheless, “Vaxxed” works overtime to mimic the look of a credible research project, with charts and graphs tossed around to lend an air of authenticity. But no amount of data sets — nor the numerous tearful parents recalling their healthy children transforming into autism cases — can change the utter lack of substance within these claims. Wakefield sounds the alarm about a rise in autism coinciding with vaccinations as if the two were intrinsically linked; at no point does anyone address the possibility that these are discrete phenomena. Any high school math student will tell you that correlation is not causation, but Wakefield’s team didn’t get the memo.
The most egregious argument of the anti-vaccination movement, reiterated with utter seriousness in “Vaxxed,” finds Wakefield playing the race card. In a segment of the film titled “The African American Effect,” Wakefield emphasizes research claiming that black children are particularly susceptible to developing autism after receiving the vaccine, with the assumption being they were somehow genetically predisposed to the trigger rather than the disease itself.
This allegation marks the one time that a detail from the recorded Thompson call sounds fairly accurate: When Hooker asserts that “race is downplayed” in the CDC findings, Thompson replies, “Of course.” Set to an ominous score and the jittery graphic of an audio file, these conversations carry the aura of devious intentions. But in moments like these, Thompson just sounds like he’s rolling his eyes at absurd insinuations.
Any viewer of “Vaxxed” willing to look at its individual components should be doing the same. Wakefield’s by-the-numbers approach to didactic storytelling relies on tons of random factoids positioned out of context to drive home his agenda. An end credit declares that “every seven minutes, a child in the U.S. is diagnosed with autism,” the kind of tenuous data set that passes for hard evidence in Wakefield’s bizarro universe.
In a statement leading up to the film’s release, Wakefield’s co-writer Del Bigtree claimed that “Vaxxed” is “not an anti-vaccine movie,” which is kind of like saying “Triumph of the Will” is anti-Hitler. Strung together in obvious ways to induce a constant sense of dread (look out for the slo-mo shot of a crying child!), “Vaxxed” shamelessly repeats the same non-arguments over and over again, drowning facts in murky proclamations.
Bigtree, a television journalist who became a primary Wakefield defender, surfaces in the movie to proclaim that the doctor has been censored by larger forces. (He also attended the first public screening of “Vaxxed” in New York, where he was surrounded by skeptics and fans alike afterward, clearly pleased with the attention.)
But “Vaxxed” never tries to demystify its wildest insinuations. While the pharmaceutical industry is nobody’s idea of a perfect system, the idea of a grand conspiracy to make a dime off MMR vaccines while creating widespread autism sounds like much ado about nothing. There’s a lot of Shakespearean hubris at the root of “Vaxxed,” a tale of sound and fury signifying nothing but its own homegrown idiocy.
“Vaxxed” is currently playing at New York’s Angelika Film Center with an expansion to other cities planned.