Claiming the moral high ground while swimming in ethical contradictions, “The Greater Good” addresses the hot-button issue of childhood immunizations, tackling the topic in a manner that will have only one immediate outcome: Fewer kids will be vaccinated. Whether that actually serves the greater good doesn’t seem to be a question of much concern to the filmmakers, but by stirring up the controversy already swirling around the matter, the docu (opening Oct. 14 for a one-week Los Angeles run) should do its healthiest biz in home formats.
While virtually all social-issue docus are propaganda of one sort or another, few are as stealthy about it as “The Greater Good,” which allows both sides to voice their arguments at length. On one hand, there are issues of parental rights, the casualties of vaccinations that shouldn’t have been administered, and the influence of Big Pharma on Congress and state governments regarding what immunizations to give and how compulsory they should be. On the other, a citizenry has an interest in preventing epidemics.
The film’s poster boy could have been presidential candidate Rick Perry, who was lambasted after a debate last month — first by the right for having ordered Texas schoolgirls to receive Gardasil, a vaccine aimed at shielding them from human papillomavirus (a common sexual infection that can lead to cervical cancer); then by the left because the vaccine’s manufacturer, Merck, is a major Perry campaign contributor.
All the concerns here are legitimate, but the strategies employed by filmmakers Kendall Nelson and Chris Pilaro make it clear they’re firmly against the herd mentality mentioned here — the point of view that what serves the population as a whole is best, regardless of the occasional casualty. “How many are being sacrificed?” asks Barbara Loe Fisher, founder of the National Vaccine Information Center. Never mind that she should know; what the film does is open a door it doesn’t want to walk through, preferring not to consider that one has to balance the downside of an advancement with its benefits. “The Greater Good” doesn’t actually recoil from the idea that a society needs to be self-serving to survive, but (oddly, given its title) merely sidesteps it.
Three different cases provide the narrative core of the film: A former high school cheerleader in Wichita, Kan., who suffered disabling strokes after taking Gardasil; a young boy in Portland, Ore., who developed autism caused by the heavy metals in his vaccines; and the parents of a baby girl whose death was linked to infancy’s ordinarily routine bombardment of shots.
None of these calamities should have happened, but in the case of Gardasil, which Merck spent $100 million advertising to teenagers, “The Greater Good” is on to a different subject, namely the enormous political influence of the pharmaceutical industry. (As anyone who watches sports on TV knows, Gardasil is hardly the only drug being given a relentless advertising thrust.) As several of the pro-vaccine authorities interviewed say, the fear generated by those who are anti-vaccine (or in favor of “more information”) will result in previously controlled diseases — such as measles or chicken pox, both of which are more serious than they sound — roaring back to epidemiological life.
But each time someone like Paul Offit, the chief of the division of infectious disease at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, makes a seemingly argument-ending point — that parents, for instance, might not be the best ones to digest the data regarding vaccinations, or that immunizations, like seatbelts, need to be mandated precisely because people often don’t do what’s best for them — the sequence is followed by one of the film’s very sympathetic victims, or a shot of parents visiting their child’s grave.
Admittedly, it would have been difficult for the filmmakers to show the other side of those scenes; how do you focus on subjects who haven’t died from smallpox, diphtheria or pertussis because they were immunized as children? But that would require an approach that doesn’t take advantage of the audience’s emotions.
Production values are fine, notably Penelope Falk’s editing, which segues easily among a number of disparate points of views. The animated sequences, while amusing enough, seem like an afterthought.