Clear and Present Danger, by Sarah Brinks
Second Opinion is a little bit Law & Order, a little Frontline documentary, and a little bit Tom Clancy novel. Second Opinion is a documentary about Ralph W. Moss who in the mid-nineteen-seventies became a science writer for Sloane-Kettering’s public relations department. During his early days as a writer he had to answer people’s letters who wrote in with their thoughts on cancer cures. Many were “folk” cures he could easily ignore but he answered many letters asking about a drug called Laetrile, which is derived from apricot pits. He had an organization approved response to letters about Laetrile which fobbed it off as an ineffective treatment. Moss then met Doctor Kanematsu Sugiura, a pioneer in cancer research, who was in his eighties at the time. When Moss asked him what he was working on then he answered that he was testing Laetrile. Moss had been saying for years that it was a useless drug based on the company-wide policy so he was very surprised that one of the world’s top cancer researchers was spending any time on it. Dr. Sugiura found that Laetrile was actually an effective drug in about 80% of the mice he tested at reducing the lung metastases for a period of time and also served as a pain reducer in the mice. However Sloane Kettering had their own agenda and they continued to deny that Laetrile had any benefits for cancer patients. Moss had seen the results of Dr. Sugiura’s tests and knew that Sloane Kettering was lying. So he convinced Dr. Sugiura to give him a copy of the test results and Moss leaked the results in a number of forums including a monthly magazine he helped create called ‘Second Opinion’. The majority of the contributors to ‘Second Opinion’ were employees of Sloane Kettering, so they had to be very careful and stay anonymous. In the end Moss has no choice but to admit that he was the leak. He was fired and became a lifelong advocate for alternative medicines and Laetrile.
Second Opinion is careful to never overstate the benefits of Laetrile. They have a card at the start of the film telling people who have or may have cancer to visit a doctor. They also state many times throughout the film that Laetrile is NOT a cure for cancer, according to the results of Dr. Sugiura’s tests it can reduce tumor sizes for a time and can be used to reduce pain in cancer patients. I am glad that the film is as careful as it is, I can only imagine the desperation someone facing cancer must feel and the film makers clearly don’t want to offer false hope of a cure. There are many instances in the film when footage is used of cancer patients or their families talking about having to go down to Mexico to get Laetrile.
The main focus of the film is the controversy between Sloane Kettering and the results of Dr. Sugiura’s tests. As interesting as it is, I have to admit it is a pretty slow film. There are long sections of medical jargon and data. I am not a doctor nor do I have medical knowledge beyond college biology and watching many seasons of ER, so listening to Moss read medical notes and logs from conferences was not very engaging to me. Moss himself is an interesting and entertaining character. He has a fun personality and is a good story teller. Moss is able to see the humor in some of the situations which at the time were very difficult to deal with. When the film focuses on the people and the controversy it is more interesting, when it focuses on the medical details it is much slower and sometimes lost my attention.
The film is mostly interviews with Moss, his family, and a few other players from ‘Second Opinion’ publication efforts. In addition the film uses political cartoons, photos, documentation & news footage to fill in the gaps and provide proof for the story Moss is telling. There is also footage from a press conference Sloane Kettering gave which goes to support Moss’ story and his interpretation of Dr. Sugiura’s feelings.
Overall it is an interesting story that I knew nothing about going into the film. I learned a lot, and we disturbed by “big medicine’s” response to a drug that could possibly help cancer patients. It is a slow documentary though, you have to sit through a lot of medical explanations and a lot of documentation referral, which is not the most compelling use of the film media. I think if the material had been in the hands of a more capable documentarian it could have a very compelling film, instead it is just a bit of a frustrating dud.