'The Widowmaker': Film Review

The Widowmaker Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Teszler PR

The Widowmaker Still - H 2015

You'll want to consult your cardiologist after seeing this urgent doc. Or maybe not.

Patrick Forbes' documentary lambasts the medical industry for attempting to suppress an inexpensive test that could prevent countless deaths from heart attacks

The Widowmaker is not for the faint of heart.

Not that's it's a horror movie, although it is, for all the wrong reasons. This documentary by Patrick Forbes (Wikileaks: Secrets and Lies) details the medical controversy over the use of stents versus coronary calcium scanning for the treatment of heart disease, and it presents a terrifying array of statistics. Included among them is the fact that some 600,000 Americans die every year of the condition, and that many of the deaths could have been prevented. Delivering story after story of seemingly healthy people suddenly dropping dead from massive heart attacks, it begins to make you wonder whether you'll even survive watching it.

The latest in a seemingly endless series of docs lambasting the medical profession, it presents a compelling argument that the scans, which provide early warnings of possible heart issues, have been opposed for years by the health care industry for reasons that have far more to do with commerce than science. Stents, which involve the surgical implantation of a metal tube into arteries to keep them open, are a hugely profitable source of income for doctors and hospitals. The procedure, which can cost upwards of $50,000, is simple and quick to perform, and many doctors have gotten rich doing it. Indeed, one heart surgeon interviewed who does them with startling frequency comments, "If I get bored, I do a few more stents."

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We're introduced to the procedure's inventor, Julio Palmaz, who says that the inspiration for the device came while puttering around in his garage. He's now rich, happily retired and the owner of his own winery.

The film is clearly in favor of the preventative and inexpensive scan which, by analyzing the amount of calcium in arteries, provide a clear indicator of future trouble. Commenting about the huge number of death by sudden heart attacks, Gillian Anderson, narrating in her most authoritative, FBI Agent Scully voice, declares, "The vast majority of them could have been saved…here's how."

We hear from numerous doctors and various other figures about the scan's life-saving effects, including Arthur Agatston, the author of The South Beach Diet, and Rene Oliveira, a Texas politician who managed to get a bill passed making the test mandatory in the state. Confronted with a differing opinion by a cardiologist, Oliveira sneers, "He's an idiot."

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Calcium scans became mandatory for U.S. presidents after Bill Clinton's sudden bypass, and NASA also instituted the practice after a heart scare involving one of its astronauts in space.

To its credit, the film also includes dissenting opinions from various experts,, but it's clear, pardon the pun, where its heart lies.

Unfortunately, it also hammers home its themes with an overly manipulative approach, recounting numerous cases of several seemingly healthy individuals who suddenly suffered massive heart attacks. We hear recordings of urgent 911 calls, and there is emotional testimony from numerous people who've lost loved ones. But really, is there anyone who would argue that heart attack deaths are a good thing?  

Production: Oxford Films
Director/screenwriter: Patrick Forbes
Producer: Stephanie Collins  
Executive producer: Mark Bentley
Director of photography: Jon Sayers
Editor: Kate Spankie
Composer: Justin Nicholls
Narrator: Gillian Anderson

Not rated, 96 min.