Delivering something of a shock to the system, the documentary "The Widowmaker" follows the money in the treatment of heart disease, revealing how the profit factor has adversely affected millions of people.
A few dramatic fillips — a model of a toiling heart, audio of 911 calls — underscore the urgency of the message, but for the most part Patrick Forbes' film is a straightforward reckoning, exposing a system that promotes costly intervention tactics rather than affordable preventive measures.
The director combines physicians' commentary with first-person accounts from patients, among them quintuple-bypass recipient Larry King, as well as people who lost seemingly healthy loved ones to heart attacks.
Narrator Gillian Anderson intones the grim statistics about Americans' No. 1 killer. She traces the recent history of the metal stent, a once-revolutionary way of opening blocked arteries. Over 30-odd years, stenting has gone from oddity to industry: With a price tag in the tens of thousands of dollars, the procedure has enriched doctors and, according to the film, rescued at least one hospital from the financial brink.
As to its role in saving lives, Forbes and many of his interviewees aren't convinced. They point to a $100 test, the coronary calcium scan, as a truly proactive approach, albeit one that has been scorned by the medical establishment, insurers included, in what one physician calls a "deadly double standard."
Despite confusing information about the role of diet and lifestyle, "The Widowmaker" is a lucid and important work of advocacy journalism. It illuminates yet another way that mainstream medicine thrives on crisis rather than health.
No MPAA rating.
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.
Playing: Downtown Independent, Los Angeles.