A decade-plus ago, director Michael Mann erected a stylish, Gregorian Chant-backed mainstream art film about the plight of Jeffrey Wigand, tobacco industry exec-turned-whistleblower of same. The Insider would have had a pittance of the overwrought impact had it focused instead on Victor DeNoble, a pharmacologist who in the early ’80s was hired by Philip Morris to ostensibly make a “safer cigarette.” His research led to the discovery that adding a certain chemical dramatically augmented the addictive power of cigarettes. When the industry came under fire in the mid-’90s—with Congress plugging away at CEOs who uniformly feigned ignorance of their product’s enslaving powers—it was DeNoble’s expert testimony that helped turn the tide.
The reason why Addiction Incorporated is a documentary and not a movie, even a TV movie of the week, is simple: DeNoble is a hugely likable guy—charming, down-to-earth, eloquent. If he has a problem, it’s dyslexia, a condition that plagued him through his adolescence before he (obviously) overcame it to procure multiple science degrees. In short, he’s not fucked-up—not like Jeffrey Wigand, a tortured soul capable of being played by Russell Crowe. DeNoble is here to explain the facts about nicotine addiction, and the legal kerfuffle(s) around it, in the most layman-friendly fashion possible, and the film largely focused around him follows suit.
In fact, Addiction Incorporated is downright sober, lacking utterly in theatrics. There’s barely any music, and the occasional animation cutaways tend toward the light and silly (e.g., mouse-people lounging about a utopia, meant to signify a nicotine-high). Its calmness perhaps inadvertently belies the fact that it’s at least a decade too late to have any major impact. At this point in history, smoking is all but persona non grata, and the idea of kids running around with shirts advertising Marlboro—as seen in archival footage—is so alien to us that the image, from the ’90s, seems like it hails from an alternate universe. Beyond the particulars, important as those are, Addiction Incorporated isn’t telling us anything we don’t know. Like DeNoble, it’s simply really nice—although that, of course, is the sign of how earth-quaking his actions against the tobacco industry indeed were.