'Little Children'

HBO's "Addiction Project" is a counterpoint of sorts to ABC's anti-drug initiative of a few years past -- ditching the facile "Just say no" mantra fostered during the Reagan years to pursue deeper comprehension of why people repeatedly say "Yes."

Billed as a multiplatform campaign aimed at helping Americans understand addiction as a chronic but treatable brain disease, HBO’s “Addiction Project” is a counterpoint of sorts to ABC’s anti-drug initiative of a few years past — ditching the facile “Just say no” mantra fostered during the Reagan years to pursue deeper comprehension of why people repeatedly say “Yes.” The central documentary is something of a mishmash consisting of nine separate segments overseen by different filmmakers, but the overall program (augmented by 13 short films) is a laudable use of the pay net’s marketing muscle to advance a public-service agenda.

“Addiction” (whose companion book is subtitled “Why Can’t They Just Stop?”) takes an unusually sympathetic view toward drug and alcohol abusers, the latter group alone numbering an estimated 17 million in the U.S. The overall approach, though, inevitably yields a series of individual images as opposed to a cohesive perspective, relying upon various directors to capture the sometimes harrowing, sometimes heartbreaking scope of the problem.

Along the way, we meet a “functional drunk,” an ER patient whose arm is hideously injured during a drunken binge, stoned teenagers and pained parents. The parents provide the most touching, helpless sense of the toll of drugs, especially in Susan Froemke’s examination of the insurance industry and the reliance on managed care to the detriment of promising treatment programs.

The goal, clearly, is to send viewers away seeing addiction less as a demonstration of weakness and moral failing than a disease — one about which our knowledge is rapidly expanding, experts say. Crucial are the points that most addiction starts before the age of 30, that relapse is part of the disorder and that drugs “commandeer our brain’s reward system and drive our behavior,” as University of Colorado psychiatry professor Paula Riggs puts it, requiring “powerful treatments to thwart those drives.”

Inasmuch as HBO’s boundary-pushing programming is seen, in more conservative quarters, as emblematic of the “If it feels good, do it” mentality, it’s possible the messenger could somewhat obscure the message. Still, the channel is presenting this endeavor as a full-blown crusade, complete with the book, DVD release, online component and telecast of the initial spec during a free-trial period, when every cable subscriber will have access to the channel.

Given that expansive commitment, whatever the documentary’s shortcomings, it’s hard to do anything but applaud HBO’s ambitions and desire to tackle such an elaborate educational campaign.

Addiction

HBO, Thurs. March 15, 9 p.m.

Production

Executive producer, Sheila Nevins; producers, John Hoffman, Susan Froemke; directors, Jon Alpert, Froemke, Albert Maysles, Eugene Jarecki, Kate Davis, David Heilbroner, Liz Garbus, Rory Kennedy, D.A. Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus, Alan Raymond, Susan Raymond, Barbara Kopple.

Crew

Editor, Paula Heredia; music, Michael Feldman. 90 MIN.
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