Under the Eightball

"Under the Eightball" and its political/historical/medical revelations end up all over the place.

Like a bulging pinata of information struck with the muckraker’s baseball bat, “Under the Eightball” and its political/historical/medical revelations end up all over the place. Which doesn’t make what it has to say about the causes and cover-up of Lyme disease any less provocative, disturbing or timely — just a lot harder to follow. While hardcore documaniacs will likely attend during the pic’s limited theatrical run, “Eightball’s” structural eccentricities and excesses only defeat the purpose of putting investigative journalism onscreen — namely, widespread exposure of the topic.

Which is too bad, because the subject is fascinating, once helmers Timothy Grey and Breanne Russell decide what that subject is. They seem to suffer the handicap of being a little too close to their movie: Grey’s sister, Lori Hall-Steele, was (mis)diagnosed in 2007 with Lou Gehrig’s disease, which she and her family believed was more likely Lyme disease.

The extent to which the Michigan medical community resisted the Lyme idea, we’re told via Grey and Russell’s script and onsite hospital footage, seems to have hewed to unwritten policy: Despite the kind of industrial pollution one finds in Michigan, and what experts believe is its connection to Lyme disease, diagnoses are almost never made and environmental links are ignored. Patients such as Hall-Steele are denied the option of antibiotics, to their decided detriment. (The Lyme conspiracy was also covered in the recent docu “Under Our Skin.”)

Clearly, Grey’s love for his sister and his justified fury over her suffering fueled the passion with which he undertook his film. But it also seems to have blinded both him and Russell to the folly of devoting the first 45 minutes of the movie to what is basically overture.

Their principal thesis is that Lyme has its roots in Nazi Germany and WWII-era Japan, experiments in chemical and biological warfare, the use of insects to carry human infections, the U.S. military experiments on Plum Island and the scandalous, 40-year-long Tuskegee experiment (in which black sharecroppers were purposely not treated for syphilis). Grey and Russell contend that today’s CDC guidelines on Lyme are structured precisely to limit diagnoses and protect the guilty, as well as the market for approved Lyme-disease treatment.

“Under the Eightball” is a melange of stylistic gestures; arty sequences alternate with gadfly antics in Michigan state offices, or sub-Michael Moore scenes of Grey outside the White House, calling President George W. Bush on the phone to discuss Lyme disease (please).

Much of the footage, especially during the early going, could have been omitted. And the filmmakers’ assaultive technique of machine-gunning the audience with an encyclopedia’s worth of information suggests a lack of confidence in the audience’s attention span.

At the same time, the experts who calmly and rationally discuss the history of bio-warfare and the politics of medicine are riveting (especially given the current health-care miasma). And the entirety of “Under the Eightball” is important, as a memorial gesture to Hall-Steele and a figurative slap in the face to corrupt factions of the medical establishment.

Under the Eightball

  • Production: An Andalusian Dog/Movies for People presentation in association with Missing Lynx Pictures. Produced by Timothy Grey, Breanne Russell, Patrick Paul, Eric Gustafson, D.C. Hayden, Steve Emling, Tj Luetz, Robert Bruce-Bushway, Philip Clyne, Ryan Tomie, Skyler Hobbs, Gabe Clark, Alyssa Russell. Executive producer, Justin Blake. Co-producers, Rasheed Ali, Dorel Nechifor. Directed, written by Timothy Grey, Breanne Russell.
  • Crew: Camera (color/B&W), Russell, D.C. Hayden, Timothy Hall; editors, Grey, Russell; sound, Bill Keskey. Reviewed at IFC Center, New York, Dec. 16, 2009. Running time: 122 MIN.