From Shock to Awe


In brotherhood there are battles.

(2018) Documentary (Self-Released) Mike Cooley, Matt Kahl, Chris Young, Ryan LeCompte, Brooke Cooley, Aimee Kahl.  Directed by Luc Côtė

 

Every day in America, 22 veterans take their own lives. That’s more than have been killed in the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. I’m pretty sure that’s not a statistic that recruiting officers feel free to share with potential recruits.

Mike Cooley and Matt Kahl are both former soldiers living in the Colorado Springs area. Both are married with children (Cooley’s wife is also a combat veteran). Both are suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Both have been prescribed an enormous number of pharmaceuticals (over 90, according to Kahl who shows a medicine cabinet stuffed to the gills with pills) and both have found their treatments ineffective. Both describe an endless list of seemingly innocuous triggers, from people talking on cell phones, to being tailgated while driving to school (Cooley is attending the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs) to flashes of light in a dark room.

Both men have been severely crippled by their disease. Their family lives have suffered; their wives feel helpless to ease the suffering of their husbands, who often take their frustrations out on their families or worse yet, shut down completely around them. They’ve tried all sorts of different forms of psychotherapy; none of them have worked.

In desperation, they have flown to Orlando to meet Chris Young, founder of the Soul Quest organization. He proposes using an Amazonian concoction called ayahuasca which is a powerful psychotropic drug that is currently banned in the United States (Young gets around it by using the drug in religious ceremonies and is a shaman with the Ayahuasca Church of the Mother Earth. He prefaces the ceremony by telling the men (who are accompanied by their buddy Ryan LeCompte) that they will experience a deep connection with the natural world.

The change in the men, after several ceremonies both daylight and night time, is remarkable. They are smiling again, able to reconnect with their families. The change is so remarkable that Brooke Cooley, herself suffering from PTSD but unable to tend to her own needs because of the severity of her husband’s condition, undergoes therapy utilizing MDMA, the psychotropic found in Ecstasy. She also experiences remarkable change.

Most documentaries these days tend to favor an non-objective point of view and that is certainly the case here. Although there is a warning that ayahuasca can be dangerous and should only be administered by those experienced with the drug, for the most part we are told that it is a miracle cure based solely on anecdotal evidence. There have been very few serious scientific studies of the plant-based drug and while the website does have some experts discussing the drug, none of that appears in the final film and quite frankly it could have used some. Also, like any other drug, ayahuasca doesn’t work the same way for everybody and it isn’t always helpful.

In fact, there are almost no talking heads other then Cooley, Kahl and their wives. Military footage from the Middle East is often interspersed into the film, forming a cinematic equivalent to the flashbacks the vets often suffer through – thankfully, however, Côtė doesn’t use animation or CGI to mimic the psychedelic experience of the ayahuasca.

There certainly is enough anecdotal evidence to mount a serious medical study of the drug, but the United States is reluctant to look into any sort of psychoactive substance with any seriousness, perhaps due to the disastrous LSD studies of the 50s and 60s. Big Pharma is also unwilling to allow such studies to be taken; they earn far more in treating the symptoms than they would from finding a cure. This is why capitalism and medicine shouldn’t mix.

Still, the problem that vets face with PTSD, depression and suicide is very real and the current means of dealing with it are woefully inadequate. Our veterans do deserve better and this movie at least makes that salient point. I only wish they’d gone about it with a little more research and skepticism; our veterans also deserve to see every side to a potential life-changing cure. There is no vetting of a drug that can admittedly be dangerous, and that in and of itself is also dangerous.

REASONS TO SEE: A stark portrayal of how our system fails veterans. Shows the effects of PTSD not only on the returning soldiers but on their families as well.
REASONS TO AVOID: Shows little objectivity when it comes to alternative treatments.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a pretty fair amount of salty language, depictions of drug use and some war violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nearly 20% of all combat veterans who have returned from service in Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Vimeo
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/27/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Shaman
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness continues!

Nuts!


Does this man look completely nuts to you?

Does this man look completely nuts to you?

(2016) Documentary (mTuckman) Gene Tognacci, Andy Boswell, John Causby, Kelly Mizell, Jeff Pillars, Thom Stylinski, Fran Taylor, Pope Brok, Gene Fowler, Dr. James Reardon, Megan Seaholm, Dr. John R. Brinkley, John R. Brinkley, Jr. Directed by Penny Lane

 

Our need to believe can sometimes push us beyond the bounds of reason. We often feed our own belief systems with that which makes no logical sense, but because it jives with what we want to believe, we accept it as fact. That’s nothing new, as the story of Dr. John Romulus Brinkley will attest.

John R. Brinkley arose from the tiny town of Milford, Kansas (a town which ironically no longer exists as it sits at the bottom of a reservoir today) when a local farmer complained that his sexuality was something of a “flat tire.” Brinkley suggested that he, as the town’s local doctor, transplant goat testicles into the farmer and voila! Nine months later the formerly flat tire was, as they say, fully inflated and no longer shooting blanks.

The good doctor quickly became a wealthy man as people from all over the country began to flock to his Milford hospital for the transplantation of their own. Results were, to say the least, startling. Dr. Brinkley also became one of the first to use mass media to his advantage, establishing a 5,000 watt radio station in Milford which not only broadcast the doctor’s health-related screeds but also became the first station in the country to broadcast country music.

Brinkley had it all back then, in the 1910s and 1920s; wealth, a wife who adored him, a bright-eyed son he called Johnny-Boy, a palatial manor, private airplanes and yachts and as the 1930s rolled in, the attention of a crusading journalist for the Journal of the American Medical Association. Morris Fishbein went after Brinkley with a vengeance, claiming that the good doctor was a quack. He would see to it that Brinkley’s license to practice medicine was revoked as well as his license to operate a radio station.

Undeterred, the gadfly of a doctor ran for the governor of Kansas and might have won but for ballots that had been voided under shady circumstances. Eventually, Dr. Brinkley discovered a pharmaceutical solution to impotence and men were once again lining up to recapture the virility they once had. It was Viagra before Viagra was Viagra. And not content with reaching a portion of the country, Dr. Brinkley constructed a million watt radio station in Mexico that would beam his message to the entire country. Once again, Dr. Brinkley was riding high…and we all know what happens to people who ride high.

Director Penny Lane, who previously gave us Our Nixon, a look at the former president through the home videos of those around him, has done a masterful job here. In a short 79 minutes she deftly weaves the tale of Dr. Brinkley through archival footage, animated recreations and a very limited use of talking heads. However, she makes the most of the interview footage as she uses historians with specific specialties – James Reardon for the history of Kansas, Megan Seaholm for the history of medicine and the AMA and Gene Fowler for the history of radio. All contribute important background for the story.

The animation is done by several different studios and starts out in black and white as the early days of Brinkley’s rise are illustrated and gradually shifts to color as we enter the 1930s and beyond. The graphics are generally simple and sometimes crudely drawn but they suit the subject nicely and are a welcome addition to the narrative, although some of the animations are occasionally not as powerful in illustrating the story as they might be.

The interesting thing here is that Lane credits the self-aggrandizing biography of Brinkley written by Clement Wood in 1934 and commissioned by Brinkley himself. In that sense, we see Brinkley through Brinkley’s own eyes and there’s a peculiar fascination there; it really is in car wreck territory in a lot of ways. And we eventually learn that we are not hearing the absolute truth from Brinkley and as the story unravels, our perceptions are forced to change radically, showing Lane to be a masterful storyteller and illustrating vividly that the need to believe rests in us as well.

The tone of the film has a bit of a cornpone edge to it and those documentary purists who want their true stories set to a serious tone, this might be a bit vulgar. Believers in alternative medicine may shudder at some of the things that are illustrated here and might take offense if they choose to believe that the film is an indictment of alternative medicine in general (it’s not).

This is a story as American as apple pie and while it was big news back in the day, it is barely a blip on our historical radar. Few today remember Brinkley and if they do, it’s more for his pioneering use of radio than for his various treatments of impotence. His is also a cautionary tale; as the narrative changes and we realize what is really going on, we are given graphic evidence of how easily manipulated we all are. In an age where anyone can say anything on the Internet and present it as fact and be believed by millions, we are far more vulnerable to the John R. Brinkleys of the world than we were even back then and that’s a frightening thought.

REASONS TO GO: An American tale in every sense of the word. A pervasive sense of humor that is almost subversive. The change in tone near the end is unexpected and welcome.
REASONS TO STAY: Might be a little too goofy for purists. Alternative medicine practitioners may cringe a little. Some of the images are ineffective.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sexual dialogue and suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Won the special jury award at Sundance for documentary editing.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/8/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Informant (2012)
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: X-Men: Apocalypse