The trajectory of the blunt anti-vaccination documentary, Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe, which premiered this weekend at the Angelika Film Center In New York City, aligns eerily well with that of its director and former UK gastroenterologist, Andrew Wakefield.

Once given the veneer of respectability, thanks to its last-day placement within the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival later this April, the documentary was soon swarmed upon by critics from all corners of the science world, who feared it would promote the widely debunked theory that autism spectrum disorders are caused by childhood vaccinations to an otherwise unsuspecting audience — a theory that endures in the public consciousness due in no small part to Wakefield’s first applauded, then discredited research in the late 1990s showing such a link.

Like Wakefield, the film first had its mainstream defenders, with actor, Tribeca co-founder, and father of a child with autism Robert De Niro stating earlier in March that he personally sought its inclusion in the festival because he wanted the “opportunity for a conversation around the issue.” Within days, De Niro and the festival reversed their position, having spoken with “members of the scientific community,” and deciding that their “concerns with certain things in this film” meant the film fest could no longer be the home of its world premiere. The scientific community, largely spurred by the investigative work of journalists like Brian Deer, had similarly stripped Wakefield of his credibility and his license to practice medicine in the UK in 2010.

And so it was that Vaxxed instead made its grand debut in a quaint 80-seat theater, having been quickly acquired by Cinema Libre Studio; the irony of the film’s earnest message first being shown to the public on April 1st seemingly lost to any of its creators. But what about the contents of that message? Were the critics right about its misleading and decidedly anti-science bent? I decided to see for myself.

Heavy On Emotion, Light On Facts

Spoiler alert: They were.

Whatever unflattering facts the film presented — that diseases like measles have made a comeback in developed countries due to anti-vaccination sentiment or that Wakefield was disbarred from medicine — are lightly touched on through 10-second news clips or addressed by a vague rebuttal from the director himself.

At one point, Wakefield claimed that the inspiration behind his original 1998 study in the Lancet was a chance encounter he had with the mother of a child with autism; a statement that flies far left of the documented evidence showing he was personally funded by a legal firm to provide ammunition for a group of parents’ civil litigation against vaccine manufacturers. Wakefield was further financially motivated to find a link because he hoped to patent his own “safer” vaccine afterward, a conflict of interest never highlighted in the study or the film.

The entire film is riddled with these sleights, periodically offset by the truly impactful depictions of children with autism that sometimes left audience members nearby in tears. But perhaps none were as egregious as with the film’s central conceit, which strangely isn’t addressed in detail until its midpoint.

The alleged cover up in the title goes as such: In 2004, a study commissioned by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found, like many studies before and many since, no link between the MMR vaccine and autism, regardless of when a child recieved their shot. Years later, one of the authors, Dr. William Thompson, confessed he and his colleagues buried data that showed African American boys who were given the shot between 24 and 36 months of age had a much higher risk of the disorder. The recipient of this confession was Brian Hooker, a biologist and father of an autistic child, who, without Thompson’s permission, recorded many of their conversations together. Hooker then allegedly utilized the data Thompson gave to him to perform his own analysis of the CDC study in 2014, finding a higher risk as well.

Yet, for all the hours of taped calls Wakefield and Hooker must have had available, the recorded and sometimes spliced-together excerpts of Thompson never admit to the outright fabrication alluded to in the film.

According to a 2014 statement from Thompson, he and his authors chose to omit the finding showing that specific risk from the final paper, a decision he personally disagreed with. He, however, added that he would never discourage any parent from vaccinating their children, no matter what their race. The study’s data, while dramatized in the film as being selectively destroyed by cackling doctors in the dark, remains available on the CDC website for other researchers to pore through at their own leisure. In 2015, the CDC itself clarified that the finding wasn't detailed in the final paper because it ceased to exist when the authors performed a more in-depth analysis of the children. And much like Wakefield’s research, the Hooker study was soon retracted by its publishing journal for “concerns about the validity of the methods and statistical analysis.” None of these points made it to the screen, though Hooker told me afterward that he suspected the CDC had unduly pressured the journal to remove his paper and that he planned to contest the decision.

But even if the Hooker or CDC study truly showed a race- and gender-specific effect of the vaccine, that also would mean there’s no effect in children who aren’t black or male — a gaping logical flaw never addressed in the film, which repeatedly flips between quickly displayed images of the omitted data and suffering white families. Of the many legitimately heart-rending stories told during its runtime, exactly one belonged to the black mother of fraternal twins, whose son purportedly deteriorated less than a day after mistakenly receiving an extra dose of the MMR shot. Without even trying, Wakefield, earning an inordinate amount of screentime for being the director, misrepresents the finding, claiming it showed an increased risk in all black children.

The problem with Vaxxed, as with the anti-vaccination movement itself, is that it doesn’t care about convincing its audience with evidence. Instead, Wakefield, Hooker, and producer Del Bigtree run the viewer through a well-trod gauntlet of emotional pleas, context-free statistics (at one point, it’s tossed out that 80 percent of boys will have autism by 2031), and shadowy conspiracies, with Bigtree claiming that “all of television” has been bought out by the pharmaceutical industry.

To the film's credit. these moments played well to the half-full theater, with the very short Q&A panel afterward that featured Wakefield, Hooker, and Bigtree garnering more exclamations than question marks from the sympathetic older audience. Later, Wakefield, in the same well-fit button down pink shirt that he wore during the documentary, stood for photographs in the lobby with his few remaining fans, who were allowed to nab free copies of his 2011 book, Callous Disregard.

But for all the fleeting moments of praise Wakefield and his collaborators may have received during this weekend, there was also a palpable sense of desperation. Bigtree emphasized the need for audience members to convince their friends and families to come back for another showing and to send mass emails to their local lawmakers so that Thompson can testify in a congressional hearing. And while they attempted to downplay the Tribeca snub, they clearly lamented the failed opportunity to convert more fearful parents to the cause.

As I left the theater, I worried about that exact scenario — that people uninitiated to the controversy or of Wakefield’s disreputable reputation may walk away from the film convinced of something nefarious. Thinking on it further, though, I doubt there really are that many people these days who aren’t aware of the issue, nor too many that will even bother to see Vaxxed. Granted, there might always be a small group of people devoted to the idea that vaccines cause autism but the rest of society has moved on, thanks largely to the tireless and continuing efforts of the medical community and its advocates.

If nothing else, the Tribeca fallout demonstrated clearly that whatever conversations we need to have about the separate but important issues of vaccine safety and autism, there’s no place at the table for charlatans like Andrew Wakefield anymore.