Having their documentary accepted — and then quickly disinvited — by the Tribeca Film Festival doubtless was a barely disguised blessing for the makers of “Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe,” a film that traffics aggressively in widely debunked theories regarding alleged links between the MMR vaccine (measles, mumps and rubella) and autism. Without the publicity generated by the Tribeca turnaround, this slickly produced but scientifically dubious hodgepodge of free-floating paranoia, heart-rending imagery — lots of shots of cute infants who reportedly were damaged by vaccines — and anti-Big Pharma conspiracy mongering likely would have preached to the converted during a handful of theatrical engagements, then slid into the relative obscurity of non-commercial exhibition and home video. Given its now-elevated profile, however, “Vaxxed” is bound to have at least a slightly longer shelf life, and may even benefit from being attacked by scientists, film critics and other “establishment” types.
Certainly, such attacks will not put off the film’s target audience of skeptical parents who, for reasons ranging from resentment of government mandates to deeply held religious beliefs, have long attempted to avoid having their children vaccinated for infectious diseases. The anti-vaccination movement has long been depicted as more or less a crusade of the idiot fringe by most mainstream media — in a memorable 2009 episode of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” for example, a crusading D.A. actually pressed charges against the mother of an unvaccinated boy who fatally infected another child — so this feature-length confirmation of worst fears could be viewed as welcome and overdue counterbalance. On the other hand: The filmmakers may have inadvertently offered the most damning appraisal of their own project by including a clip of Penn Jillette (of Penn & Teller) dismissing the link between autism and vaccinations: “F—k that! It’s total bulls—t!”
“Vaxxed” is the handiwork of first-time (and, probably, last-time) director Andrew Wakefield, a British gastroenterologist who collaborated on a study linking the MMR vaccine and a reported spike in autism diagnoses that was published in the Lancet, the prestigious English medical journal, in 1998. A few years later, however, the Lancet withdrew its support of the study — kinda-sorta like how Tribeca withdrew its support for “Vaxxed” — after Wakefield was pelted with accusations of fraud, junk science and conflicts of interest. In May 2010, the gastroenterologist was stripped of his medical license.
None of that blowback has halted Wakefield’s crusade, however, and, not surprisingly, little of it is addressed in “Vaxxed.” The movie devotes a great deal of time to emotionally affecting testimonies from parents who claim their infants were happy and healthy until they began to display symptoms of autism after receiving the MMR vaccine. (One incontestably thought-provoking issue raised by the documentary: Under current U.S. law, pharmaceutical companies are largely shielded from most lawsuits stemming from side effects of vaccines.) Other lengthy chunks are devoted to questioning the impartiality (and trustworthiness) of the Centers for Disease Control, with suggestions of a dark conspiracy between Big Pharma and the CDC bolstered by secretly recorded conversations between environmental biologist Brian Hooker and CDC “whistleblower” William Thompson.
In the end, however, “Vaxxed” comes across as a grab-bag of charts, theories and anecdotal evidence that would never pass muster by the editors of any major scientific journal (like, say, the Lancet), and too often resembles the kind of one-sided, paranoia-stoking agitprop that political activists construct to sanctify true believers and assault infidels. It should be taken with several grains of industrial-strength salt — although, to be fair, it does serve as a kind of one-stop-shopping source for anyone seeking to know just what the anti-vaccination crowd is all fired up about.