“What kind of adolescence will a ten year old boy look forward to when he has no arms, no legs and is only two feet tall? How can an eleven year old girl look forward to laughing and loving when she has no hand to be held and no legs to dance on?” This emotional rhetoric, delivered by MP Jack Ashley in 1972 during a long awaited debate on the ill effects of thalidomide, resonates with the same crushing injustice today as it did over forty years ago. Attacking the Devil: Harold Evans & the Last Nazi War Crime details the plight of its campaigning titular journalist to bring justice to victims of the poisonous prenatal drug whose roots lay in Nazi Germany. It is a documentary that will enthrall, enlighten, enrage and distress. Crafted with precision and consideration for its subject matter and filled with a dense web of information, it is a well deserved and fitting testament to pioneering journalism.
In its tone and structure Attacking the Devil retains the fact by fact, hurdle by hurdle immediacy of the campaign carried out by Insight, a group of Sunday Times investigative journalists led by Harold Evans. The broadsheet’s former editor is a thoroughly engaging subject, remaining as animated and invigorated by his profession in contemporary interview as in news footage from the 1960s. Charting his career from a failure of the 11+ exam and humble beginnings at The Northern Echo, we voyage with a man forever on a mission. One who campaigned for the introduction of pap smear tests to the UK, saving countless women from cervical cancer; a closer look at the Timothy Evans case, which contributed to the abolition of the death penalty; and breaking the news of Kim Philby, perhaps the most notorious Soviet spy in UK history. His work on these stories – and in particular the thalidomide case against the colossal Distillers group who distributed the drug in the UK – often landed Evans in hot water but his unerring principals, conviction and dedication to the truth were steadfast.
Attacking the Devil achieves a rare parity between the shocking revelation of material it treats and the respectful manner in which it presents personal testimony from those most grievously affected. David Mason, whose daughter Louise was born without limbs, was one of a small group of parents who would not lay down to the corporate might of the pharmaceutical company. Expansive in terms of the decades it encompasses, the scientific information it lays bare and the far-reaching bureaucratic minefield the Insight team were forced to navigate, the film still retains a touching, heartbreaking intimacy. It was not until 2014 and a speech from Health minister Mike O’Brien that one of the worst scandals of the 20th century was officially recognised. At a time when Mark Ruffalo et al are garnering plaudits for bringing a long-running abuse scandal out of the dark in Spotlight, David and Jacqui Morris shine a spotlight on an equally significant topic and demonstrate that good, honest journalism can be a beacon of hope.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens