Bill Moyers and his ace documentary crews turn a clear eye on one of America’s most pressing and complex social problems in “Close to Home.” As the title suggests, there are few of us who can say our lives have been untouched by addiction, and Moyers states at the get go that this series was inspired by his son’s struggle with alcoholism and drug addiction — and, in turn, his family’s struggle to deal with it. Five parter, airing on three nights, goes a long way toward dispelling the stigma, stereotypes and misconceptions associated with addictive behavior. Incorporating interviews, verite footage and archival material, polished package is a gripping chronicle as well as an urgent call for remedy and reform.
Opening segment, “Portrait of Addiction,” is compelling in its simplicity. Intercutting nine talking heads interviews with recovering addicts (none of whom is identified until the end credits), the program creates a harrowing, heartbreaking picture of the cycles of addiction. The series draws a clear line between indulgence and obsessive use, a line that is often blurred in popular debate on the matter. To their credit, the filmmakers don’t shy away from the qualities of narcotics and alcohol that initially draw people in: feelings of serenity, euphoria and escape from the self.
The individuals testifying here impress with their courage, honesty and eloquence, from the suburban housewife whose drug of choice was white wine to the soldier who made a career of stealing morphine from Air Force emergency medical supplies. For each of them, the all consuming need for drink or drugs led to a place of “no life, no soul, no spirit,” and recovery has been a reclamation of freedom.
Their accounts also make clear how crucial the disease paradigm was to their recovery, releasing them from the sense of moral failure that helped to keep them in self destructive cycles. Series’ second installment, “The Hijacked Brain,” further elucidates the idea of addiction as illness, focusing on researchers in the field of neuro-science who are mapping “an image of desire in the brain” in order to identify more effective treatments and preventive approaches.
Hourlong seg is an accessible and provocative examination of the biochemistry of addiction. Contrary to the currently popular notion that it is a pre-programmed illness, something one is born with, the docu stresses that addiction is a (possibly permanent) brain disease resulting from repeated use of drugs or alcohol — not a precursor to substance abuse. All the scientists interviewed by Moyers speak of an individual’s vulnerability to addiction as a product of genetic, environmental and psychological factors in combination; as one researcher points out, “nobody is predestined” to become an addict.
Central and longest segment, the 90 minute “Changing Lives,” looks at various treatment programs, including a private facility in Atlanta and a public outreach program in Illinois that targets mothers who are addicted. There are no easy answers, but there are successes as a result of hard, soul searching work; counseling and support groups are key. The point is driven home throughout the series that there’s a basic, simplistic wrong headedness to “just say no” approaches to the problem, because addiction affects the “survival part of the brain,” and is therefore deeper than reason.
Moyers and company successfully avoid the maudlin tone that often infects discussions of addiction and recovery, and never deny the complexity of the problem. Final two installments focus on various preventive and intervention programs in schools and communities, and the grass roots movement (initiated in Arizona) to reform drug policy based on a public health model rather than the prevailing war on drugs. Many recovering addicts (Moyers’ son among them) have become professional advocates for treatment and rehabilitation.
The program convincingly argues that there is probably no war closer to home, and that it may well be time to call a truce. Moyers and company dig deep and emerge with a thoughtful contribution to the public debate on a national crisis. The 5-1/2 hours are full of indelible first person stories from survivors and those still caught in the battle for their lives.