[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on October 26.]
Halloween is almost upon us, and some people like to watch scary movies. But don’t see the new Halloween or Predator or The Nun. If you want a real horror show—because it’s true—go see Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer.
I saw it a couple Fridays ago and, while it’s not going to win any acting or cinematography awards, none of the cinematic shortcomings distract significantly from the story being told. This is one case where the story is so unbelievable, so horrific, so heart-rending, that everything else comes in second.
That’s not to say the acting is bad. Some scenes might seem more television’s Law and Order than award-winning film, but there are definite highlights. In particular, Sarah Jane Morris (as ADA Lexy McGuire) and Earl Billings (as Kermit Gosnell) are compelling and believable. Billings, especially, is convincing in his half-naive, half-psychopath portrayal. Nick Searcy does his thing (one of my favorites in every scene of Justified in which he appeared), though he goes a little over-the-top, big-time defense attorney at moments. But the best actors in this film are those who play the employees and patients of Gosnell’s clinic. These women are impressive in every sense. If they gave out awards for such short appearances on screen, they would deserve to win.
Even so, the criticisms of the film (there are very few, because there are very few notices from anyone other than conservative and pro-life commentators and websites) tend to focus on it being one-sided, or preaching to a choir of pro-life, right-wing, conservative Christians. But that simply begs the question about the nature of that bias. Is it “biased” because it tells only the “pro-life” part of the story, or is it “biased” because the story being told so fundamentally undoes every conventional “pro-choice” narrative? The discussion that is had at multiple points between ADA McGuire and DA Dan Molinari (Michael Beach) as well as with Judge Eleanor Stanley (Eleanor T. Threatt) show the reticence to bring abortion into the case at all. That those scenes are highlighted shows a desire to simply tell a straight story with as little embellishment as possible.
And there are things present that every movie does in telling stories based on true events. Individuals are conflated (including JD Mullane—who has a great op-ed here—and Mollie Hemingway—who played a significant part in blowing open the press absence at the trial—as “Molly Mullaney”) and the timeline is shortened. But this artistic license does not extend, as far as I can tell, to what Gosnell did or didn’t do. In other words, there is literally no need to heighten Gosnell’s actions, simply because they are what he actually did.
I looked up the most egregious things (such as the so-called “Mother’s Day Massacre” in 1972), and no one—regardless of political or moral positions—is disputing that Gosnell was responsible for the things depicted in the film. Some of the unbelievable things to me (the color-coded chart of drugs to give to patients and the hygienic disaster that was the Women’s Medical Society in Philadelphia) are documented with crime-scene photos at the end of the film. Besides that, much of the grand jury and courtroom dialogue, as well as police interviews, are taken verbatim from the actual transcripts. To focus criticism on typical film-making dramatic license, or conflations of time and character, is laughable in light of the main arc of the story. Further, it rings a little hollow when there have been undeniably active attempts to shorten the reach of the film.
This is not at all a graphic film. It doesn’t need to be. The expressions on the faces of those who encounter the reality tells everything. That is the most brutal thing about the whole 90-minute experience: watching Sarah Jane Morris deal with the horror of the case while she’s preparing and while she’s trying the case. Her experience, I think, probably parallels the experience of anyone who either doesn’t know the story or who might be on the fence about this particular case. Her performance is both affecting and effective. (By the way, James Taranto gives excellent insight into what the Gosnell case means for abortion policy in the U.S. here at the Wall Street Journal.)
But, finally, the hypocrisy of everything is what sticks with me nearly two weeks later. The hypocrisy of Gosnell, pretending he’s doing good things for those whom otherwise wouldn’t be served—yet putting white and black patients in different quality rooms. The hypocrisy of the Pennsylvania State Health Department, ostensibly existing to keep people safe, while refusing to investigate complaints about Gosnell’s clinic. The hypocrisy of Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America and other “women’s health clinics” who think that what they’re doing is fundamentally different from what Gosnell did (the scene where Searcy’s character cross-examines the abortionist Dr. North is palpable with ironic sarcasm). The hypocrisy of anyone (myself) who becomes complacent about the Culture of Death in which we live and move and have our being.
See Gosnell in the theater (if you can find it) and let at least a little hole of light be punched in the darkness.