Eric Merola’s newest documentary, “Second Opinion: Laetrile at Sloan-Kettering,” chronicles a fight for a cure. The year was 1974, and the War on Cancer was in full force. People were dying, and finding a cure was the top priority of New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, one of the leading cancer research centers at the time. Or so it seemed.
Ralph W. Moss was hired as a science writer for Sloan Kettering’s public relations department in 1974, where he made a career-changing discovery. While interviewing Dr. Kanematsu Sugiura, the co-founder of chemotherapy and a leading research scientist, Moss discovered that Sugiura had found very positive results for curbing tumor growth in laboratory mice by using Laetrile, an unconventional, or “quack,” cancer therapy. Laetrile was looked down upon in the public eye, and the board of Sloan Kettering refused to acknowledge the potential of this cancer treatment. Furious and motivated by this hidden discovery, Moss spent the next chapter of his career attempting to make the truth about Sugiura’s findings public.
In the majority of the film, Moss tells his own story to the camera. He comes across as honest and intelligent, and his fight appears earnest and sincere — it seems as if he is sitting at the dining room table, telling his story to family and friends. Besides the few archival photos and videos, the story really comes across through his interview. The camera work is superb with multiple angles throughout Moss’ interview, and the animated documents help the viewer keep track of the important men who sat on the board of Sloan Kettering and fought to keep Laetrile out of the market.
Documentary is a complex genre: To make a powerful documentary, a filmmaker has to find a way to creatively streamline audio and visual. Although this is a riveting and important story to be told, the problem this film faces is that the story, told in retrospect, is not visual at all. While it is enjoyable to see Moss’ kind face and important documents relating to the years of board meetings, the film would benefit from introducing creativity to address the lack of visually stimulating footage relating to Laetrile.
Laetrile, first thought up in a basement laboratory in San Francisco, was seen by the public eye and the government as ineffective quackery. The fact that positive trials of Laetrile were possibly kept hidden from the public so that America’s largest cancer research society could make a profit is disturbing. As shocking as this story is, it is inspiring to watch people such as Moss put their careers and paychecks on the line to fight for truth, justice and public health. This story exposes the dangers of mixing business with social justice and explores how corruption can make its way even in the fight for an honest cure. It questions where power lies in the drug and pharmaceutical industry and whether institutions that appear to be for the public good are upholding their values.
Merola has been delving into these questions since his first documentary, “BURZYNSKI,” which chronicles the battle between a doctor and the Food and Drug Administration over cancer treatments. He also directed an animated sequence for Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: A Love Story.”
What makes this film so relevant and important is the fact that there is currently no known cure for cancer. The main players who questioned the positive Laetrile results attained by Sugiura have now passed away due to cancer, Moss mentions ironically at the end of the film. The common goal of finding a cure for cancer seems to be lost or hidden behind all of the controversy and politics of research for treatments. When Moss was trying to expose the truth of Sugiura’s drug trials, he wrote an undercover publication and distributed it at Sloan Kettering. One can only wonder what it would have been like if Moss had the Internet to spread his message and whether more modern-day whistleblowers will learn from Moss’ story to expose wrongdoings in the medical industry today.
“Second Opinion” opens at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco on Friday.