“The Bleeding Edge isn’t as laser-focused as [director Kirby] Dick’s most accomplished efforts, yet it’s certainly effective at bringing out the natural anger of its topic.”
by Ken Bakely
Kirby Dick’s films move with an encompassing energy. Witnesses and experts are given equal yet compartmentalized places in the abstract, but his movies succeed where many standard advocacy documentaries fail, gradually entwining them in a portrait of a larger society racked by issues otherwise thought to be on the peripheries. He’s found success with this style, from the playful This Film Is Not Yet Rated to the moving The Hunting Ground. Deceptively simplistic in execution, it requires great skill in merging approaches that appeal to both the post-Michael Moore populism in the mainstream successes of the subgenre, and the careful rigor of its traditionalist, sociological ideals. The Bleeding Edge isn’t as laser-focused as Dick’s most accomplished efforts, yet it’s certainly effective at bringing out the natural anger of its topic: the disastrous consequences of effectively untested medical implants, and the pharmaceutical corporations behind them.
Dick frames his examination through a support group for women who have suffered the side effects of Essure, a permanent female birth control device that consists of small metal coils inserted into the fallopian tubes, scarring the tissue around them to keep sperm from reaching eggs. While incidents of pain and bleeding have been widespread from its introduction, manufacturer Bayer has used its considerable clout to sweep it under the rug. The Bleeding Edge spends a plurality of its time on the Essure story, documenting their eventually successful efforts to get the product off the market. But similar fates have yet to befall other dangerous products – including cobalt hip implants, which can cause dementia-like symptoms should the cobalt dissolve into the bloodstream; and a robot-guided surgical procedure leading to colonic prolapse, as explained by patients in horrifying interviews.
The Bleeding Edge is primarily an indictment of the corporations who, in their efforts to net the latest profits, have completely disregarded any human consequences to their work. There’s more to the equation of how these products are entering the marketplace to begin with, but the film’s shift towards the revolving door between corporate boards and the leadership of regulatory agencies is underworked. It’s cut in towards the last act; in order to finish the arc of the Essure thread, primarily taking place in the form of one quick graphics package. This is essentially what Dick’s thesis is built upon, but he’s so inclined to maintain our attention that he fails to draw vital connections.
Unlike many of his prior targets, there isn’t pre-existing public scrutiny towards new implants or healthcare professionals having to decide for themselves when they’re qualified to commandeer a robotic surgical aid. That’s likely where his mostly expository approach comes from. However, this is where the movie’s structure and priorities become fuzzied. For a large portion of the runtime, its problems come without context or political agency. They’re stuck in the realms of the invisibly personal, and as a big picture, they’re unquantifiable. If the point of film criticism is to discuss the mechanics and social impact of a movie and its place in the wider world, then shouldn’t a documentary, as a film, access the canvas of the medium? Regardless of the agreeability of the content, there’s a perceptual spark missing. Dick’s journalistic restlessness is admirable, but it’s more apt for a book or longform article than to stand alongside the output of his past.
Still, he’s an efficient director, and he makes good use of a specific economy that emphasizes the onscreen reality, avoiding the pitfalls of other editorialized documentaries in becoming too caught up in their own sermonizing style. We are absorbed in the moment, regardless of the uneven buildup. And finally, there’s this final hit of vigilance that’s distinctly cinematic – from the faces of individuals, working towards their goals of a safer, more altruistic humanity – connecting them to our newfound awareness of a problem very much in the present tense. The Bleeding Edge finishes as strongly as can be. Despite the difficulties Dick comes across in getting there, he operates with the same sharp, perceptive, multidimensional strength that has kept him a cut above his contemporaries.