Film

The Widowmaker Doc Examines the Medical Frailties of the Human Heart

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Decidedly not a thrilling Russian submarine film, The Widowmaker documents the story of another vessel dwelling beneath the surface: the human heart. This most vital organ is under attack — heart disease is the nation’s biggest killer, with over 600,000 deaths yearly, greater than every cancer combined.

Director Patrick Forbes’s film, narrated by the cool voice of Gillian Anderson, traces the modern history of how medical science has attempted to combat the disease. Forbes’s interviews with key figures in this battle reveal a political and financial war that has prevented a rational solution from being administered as the death toll continues to rise. The Widowmaker establishes an emotional connection to the epidemic of heart disease through a series of anecdotes from both surviving family members and survivors, including Larry King.

Particularly affecting is the story of 56-year-old David, who was told, despite years of exercise and intense dieting, that he had the arteries of an 82-year-old. 911 recordings played over aerial images of San Francisco reinforce that heart attacks can strike anyone, at any time, and without warning. The film traces the invention of preventative coronary artery scanning technology and its disastrously slow adoption by the American Heart Association.

The Widowmaker gets tangled in industry jargon that will likely turn off the layperson in its second half, when the film relies too heavily on doctoral testimony. When the acceptance of the controversial scan is finally achieved, the film presents it suddenly, without context, and robs the story of an emotional climax. Still, The Widowmaker is important and terrifying, enough that I became nervously aware of my heartbeat throughout.

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