After more than four years in the works, the independently produced film Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer, premiered this weekend and was a surprising “success.” I am sorry to say that I am being rather sardonic when I say “success” because you wouldn’t know it since if you Google “Gosnell movie review” you won’t find many reviews by most mainstream papers or news sites. This is yet another one of the many obstacles that documentary filmmakers Ann McElhinney and Phelim McAleer have encountered ever since they announced in 2014 that they were going to make a movie about the macabre tale of Kermit Gosnell.
Knowing that Hollywood would never go near a film that was not only critical of abortion, but one which shined a very unflattering light on the whole abortion-industrial-political-complex, McElhinney and McAleer decided to crowdfund the movie. In the interest of full disclosure, I will say that I was one of those people who gave money to the project, which began on Kickstarter but ended up at Indiegogo when Kickstarter kept trying to censor the content of the project’s description. And even though they finished filming in October of 2015, it was not until June of 2018 that they were able to secure a distributor for the film.
Gosnell stars Dean Cain and Alphonzo Rachel as two Philadelphia detectives who, in conjunction with the FBI and DEA, raid Gosnell’s Women’s Medical Society clinic in 2010 on suspicion of illegal drug prescription writing. They find a dark and filthy place, infested with cats and trash, and of course the body parts of all the aborted babies. Sara Jane Morris, who plays Assistant District Attorney Lexi McGuire, has her faith in the legal system she is supposed to uphold, as well as her own pro-choice beliefs put to the test as she brings this case to trial. She has to walk a fine legal line between abortion and murder, as she is instructed by a judge that the trial has to be about Gosnell being a murderer not because he was an abortionist but because he was a substandard one.
Well-acted and brilliantly written by conservative commentator, novelist, and Christian convert Andrew Klavan, the film makes use of the kind of crime and courtroom drama tropes that we are all familiar with to tell a very moving story. And I might add, in a little over 90 minutes, which was kind of a refreshing change from the 2-3 hour movies that have been coming out lately.
Gosnell is not a sentimental film like October Baby or a moving drama like Gimmie Shelter. It is a thoroughly sourced (actual crime scene photos and videos are shown during the end credits) and unvarnished retelling of the crimes of a Mengele-type “doctor” who operated what was called “house of horrors” for 17 years. Although very little gore is shown, it is nonetheless a very brutal film that is meant to leave the audience asking what Ann McElhinney did in an 2015 interview with Steven Crowder,
“I think the real problem with our film is that it makes people confront abortion. Because what he did was illegal, he murdered those children, absolutely, so it’s first degree murder. The problem is, exactly the point Kirsten Powers made the point of, if you think that it’s disgusting what he did, if you think it’s disgusting, then why is it that you don’t think it’s disgusting when it happens inside the woman?”
This point was brilliantly made in the film when a woman, who was an actual abortionist, is put on the stand during the trial in order to demonstrate that Gosnell was not representative of “actual” abortionists professionals. However, in what seems a risky attempt to mitigate his client’s actions, Gosnell’s defense lawyer Mike Cohan (played by director Nick Searcy) asks the abortionist how late-term abortions are done “professionally.” As she describes the brutality of the procedure, she grows visibly uncomfortable and before long has to resort to using the standard euphemisms surrounding abortion in order to finish her testimony. While Cohan’s tactic doesn’t work, the audience is nevertheless left with a clear impression that one has to engage in extreme disingenuousness to fool themselves into thinking that there is any real difference between Gosnell and any other abortionist.
Moreover, in addition to being confronted with the grim reality of abortion, the film is a perfect illustration of what St. John Paul II called in Evangelium Vitae, a “system of sin” and a “culture of death” where the cultural, economic, and political forces of our society are engaged in a “conspiracy against life.” A conspiracy which engendered in the government officials who were tasked with caring for the women who ended up at Gosnell’s clinic, a sense of indifference which allowed them to ignored years of complaints and illegal activity until they could no longer do so when a woman died at his clinic.
And why? Because it is the abortion industry, so government health inspectors were told by “higher ups” to leave abortion clinics alone. This then, is the other grim idea that the audience is asked to wrestle with in this movie- how is that we have arrived at a point in our nation’s history where the right to obtain an abortion must be protected at all costs?
That no matter who you are or what your state is in life, the legitimacy of abortion must never be questioned and always supported, lest you be shunned or worse. If that means accusing someone of being a religious bigot or a racist, as Cohan accused the detectives of being during the trial in the film, or destroying a man’s reputation such as during the Kavanaugh hearings, and if it means that women are allowed to suffer and die, then so be it.
Our culture of death, is in reality an addiction to it and we are knee deep in it, with no end in sight. I thought of this during the movie when Rachel’s character, detective Stark, and Lexi McGuire dress in coveralls to explore Gosnell’s basement when executing a search warrant of his house. McGuire stumbles upon the body of a dead cat that is infested with flies, which start crawling all over her. Stark grabs her and they burst outside where she takes off the coveralls. Later I told the two men who came with me, that I thought that that scene was symbolic of why this movie was made and why it should be seen by as many people as possible.
At the heart of the film is the issue of abortion. An issue that is so evil that it is hidden away in the dark, in the basement- like a grave I suppose. And down there, away from the light is death, and not a “Cirlce of Life” kind of death out of some Disney film, but an unnatural one. A diabolic one (the flies, Beelzubub!). Once it gets on you, you want to run back into the light and get it off of you, lest it consume you. You may try to forget what you saw, but you can’t because you know it’s the truth and you can’t un-know the truth.
This is why this film is worth seeing. Not just so that others will know and understand the truth of what happened within that corner building back in Philadelphia, and thousands of other places just like it. But more importantly, so that they can be confronted with the hard truths of abortion, and be forced to ask themselves whether they want that truth to burden them or set them free.