Heart attacks might seem a mundane subject for a documentary. They kill suddenly. And they’re so depressingly common as to make one wonder how you get a movie out of them.
But Patrick Forbes’ “The Widowmaker” has the makings of a thriller, with heartbreaking loss captured in wrenching 911 calls from loved ones to calm, collected operators, a little comic relief provided by heart attack survivor and professional talker Larry King — and heroes and villains, possibly motivated by greed.
Gillian Anderson narrates this story of statistics — 600,000 dead Americans per year, one fourth of them dying without showing any signs they were headed for heart failure, often due to coronary blockage.
“You don’t know you have it until you’re dead.”
We hear from surviving spouses and children, see their obituaries (“Died, age 42.”) in white graphics on black screens as somber music plays in the background.
And we hear that the “vast majority of them, men and women, could have been saved.”
Forbes hunts down the principals to tell two histories –that of the heart stent, invented by Dr. Julio Palmaz, the folding tubular structure that forces open closed arteries — and the CT heart scan, the “mammogram of the heart” that identifies the calcium deposits in the heart that predict future heart problems.
These two histories, which began in 1970s San Francisco where both procedures were born, set up the film’s central conflict. Stent surgery, expensive (as much as $50,000) mass-production medicine that has made a lot of surgeons and investors rich and put many a hospital in the black, is contrasted with a non-invasive scanning that, with lifestyle and dietary changes, might head off a heart attack before it happens.
Miami “South Beach” diet Dr. Arthur Agastston is among those in “the calcium club,” championing scanning. And notable cardiologist/opinion-makers such as Dr. Steven Nissen and Dr. Martin B. Leon are stent sticklers, leaders in the big push back against the cheaper scanning protocol that might cut into the stent business.
That’s how the film paints America’s stent-mania. One surgeon boasts of how many procedures he can do in a luxuriously short work week. And we visit Dr. Palmaz in the winery he was able to open from his stent invention.
But lives have been saved by the stent, among them retired CNN host Larry King, who tells great anecdotes about a guest on his show (former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop) telling him to see a doctor, simply based on his pallor.
And the scanning folks have made many a PR blunder as they fight against powers that seem to change the rules just to keep them down.
If you haven’t been following this debate, you might not know how it came out. But Forbes makes this story compelling, moving and provocative enough to prompt outrage, never more so that when Anderson periodically updates the death toll from heart attacks in the years since both these miraculous procedures were first developed.
MPAA Rating: unrated
Cast: Narrated by Gillian Anderson, with Larry King, Dr. Julia Palmaz, Dr. Steven Nissen, Der. Martin B. Leon, Douglas Boyd, Dr. Arthur Agatston
Credits: Directed by Patrick Forbes. A FilmBuff release.
Running time: 1:35