Activism can take many forms — on one extreme, the empirical argument, appealing to reason above all else; on the other, the pure visceral nature of an emotional response. “The Bleeding Edge” oscillates between those two extremes. The latest alarming documentary from “The Invisible War” and “The Hunting Ground” director Kirby Dick is a shocking expose of the medical device industry, and while the stories of the many lives destroyed by technology resonate, the unsettling imagery of the damage caused by those devices goes much further.
Less cohesive documentary than feature-length red flag, “The Bleeding Edge” assembles a range of talking heads and upsetting case studies to target several key villains: Essure, the permanent contraceptive implant used by millions of women, has left many of them with long-lasting pain and endless surgeries as the small, snake-like device worms its way into the uterus. The “vaginal mesh” approach yields even more gruesome results. Patients operated on by the robotic surgeries of the da Vinci System often contend with extensive infections, and others with artificial hips made with chrome-cobalt devices suffer from neurological problems. Dick lays out each of these conundrums with a series of case studies, while contextualizing within the broader context of the quack medical industry.
Through an effective blend of archival footage and the testimony of contemporary experts, the movie lays out the lineage of the industry in postwar America, while rooting it in the present day. By deconstructing misleading advertisements that exploit people eager for eager solutions, Dick makes it clear just how easily people can be hoodwinked within the parameters of the law. After all, none of these dangerous medical procedures have been stopped by the Food and Drug Administration, an arm of government that operates at the whims of lobbyists and the powerful corporations fueling this $400 billion industry.
“The Bleeding Edge” has a schematic approach that doesn’t exactly make for gripping cinema, but its alarmist tone gives imbues each mini-story with unnerving immediacy. Among the more compelling subjects is Gaby Avina, a former Essure spokesperson who wrote an actual column for the company called “Ask Gaby” singing the praises of the device before — more than a decade after having the device installed herself — joining a protest group of women who suffer from its impact. Another devastating drama involves Essure victim Ana Fuentes, who struggles to cope with her mounting medical bills and large family while living a nomadic life. Then there’s the story of Tammy Jackson, who endures surgery after surgery once her vaginal mesh (designed to hold itself in place with actual scar tissue) becomes a jumbled mess described to her by one physician as “bubblegum stuck in hair.”
But that shocking description has nothing on the gnarly image of the wiry substance stuck in a bloody mass, or the story of da Vinci patient whose colon fell out. Medical students may find this parade of mortifying tales instructive; others will recoil in terror and wonder how the hell any of these procedures remain legal during such technologically-advanced times. Dick points the finger in part at Scott Gottlieb, the Trump-appointed FDA head who seems to care as much about patient safety as Scott Pruitt cares about the environment. Even worse: the absence in the movie of representatives from major household names — including Johnson & Johnson — responsible for developing these devices, all of whom declined to participate. Dick’s movie might have had deeper resonance if he’d found some defectors from the companies to elucidate their incapacity to these problems, but “The Bleeding Edge” seems less concerned with explaining why these devices come to market than simply calling attention to their harmful effects.
In that sense, it’s ideally suited for Netflix, which produced and will release the movie worldwide. Much in the way the Essure backlash stemmed from a growing Facebook group, “The Bleeding Edge” stands a good chance at enlightening more people who have been (or might be) hoodwinked. Presumably, the Netflix algorithm won’t bury it, but there’s a bigger concern with such hard-to-watch informational material: It might reach millions, but the extent of its impact will depend on how many people choose to press play.
“The Bleeding Edge” premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival. Netflix will release it this summer.