One of my concerns with conservative culture outlets is that they tend to grade on a curve. We need to support right-leaning content creators, conservatives say. I’m all for that, but I’m not going to recommend substandard work, no matter who’s writing it or why. If you get on the field, you have to compete with the big boys, whether you’re left, right, or somewhere in the middle.
Last week, my wife and I went to see the movie Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer. Written by Andrew Klavan and directed by Nick Searcy, it stars Searcy, Dean Cain, Sarah Jane Morris, and Earl Billings. The film tells the horrific story of abortionist Kermit Gosnell, who murdered babies born alive during abortions by cutting their spinal cords with scissors (called “snipping”), and was responsible for the death of at least one adult patient. If that sounds awful, it gets a whole lot worse; there’s no way to describe what went on in his disgusting clinic without wanting to vomit.
And yet the movie goes there.
Based on the book Gosnell: The Untold Story of America’s Most Prolific Serial Killer by producers Ann McElhinney and Phelim McAleer, Gosnell the movie is graphic, but not lurid: Kermit Gosnell’s clinic is a cramped house of horrors littered with red medical waste bags, garbage, food detritus, and cat shit. The refrigerator is full of jars of severed babies’ feet. White patients got the upstairs exam room because it was less trash-filled than the downstairs exam rooms. Details like that, combined with deeply disturbing scenes in the grand jury and trial courtrooms, gave the film a disquietingly realistic feel.
But is it a good movie? Or is it just a good conservative movie?
It’s a good movie.
Deliberately patterned after the Law & Order structure, the first third or so focuses on police work: discovering Gosnell’s crimes, collecting evidence, and making an arrest. This is where Dean Cain shines, even though they didn’t give his character a whole lot to do other than react; he didn’t wrestle with any moral dilemmas, didn’t change from a pro-choicer to a pro-lifer or anything of the sort. His partner, played by Alfonzo Rachel, also did fine with little to work with. Sarah Jane Morris as assistant district attorney Alexis McGuire had the best role and did the most with it, particularly during the trial phase: as the mother of five children, including a baby boy, her character anchors the viewer to the subject matter, as horrific as it is. Earl Billings’s portrayal of Gosnell’s bizarre bonhomie was both sickening and eerie; unlike Hannibal Lecter, this was a real person who committed real crimes, and after this performance I doubt Billings will ever be able to do Aflac commercials again. Nick Searcy played the villainous defense attorney with typical panache, making up for his appearance in the execrable The Shape of Water.
As director, Searcy did a masterful job: the film moved briskly, building up to an absolutely wrenching climax during the trial. He wrung terrific performances from even minor characters, particularly the clinic nurse who, at long last, finally began to suffer pangs of conscience. Janine Turner’s portrayal of Dr. North, an abortionist put on the stand to testify on Gosnell’s behalf, was extremely hard to watch, which was the whole point.
In fact, the entire movie was hard to watch, and I experienced a great deal of it as a stomach-knotting squirm that did not let up until the end credits, and even then it wasn’t over: the filmmakers displayed real-life photos of Gosnell’s clinic and equipment during the titles. How could you hear the testimony of the clinic nurses describing the death of patient Karnamaya Mongar and not be moved? Or the death of Baby Boy A?
Luke Y. Thompson of Forbes dismissed the movie as “A feature-length Law & Order for conservative Christians.” So it’s safe to say that he wasn’t moved except to sneering contempt. I’m not a conservative Christian.
Michael Rechtshaffen of Los Angeles Times called Gosnell “sanctimonious,” even as he sanctimoniously dings executive producer Ann McElhinney for making “a documentary examining ‘global warming hysteria’”. He wasn’t moved, either.
At the time of this writing I haven’t seen any other of the larger media outfits address this film, which isn’t a surprise: it forces you to think, to examine the issue of abortion outside of protest chants and bumper sticker bromides. Who wants to do that?
I can’t promise you a rollicking good time watching Gosnell, but I can say that you’re not likely to forget it once you’ve seen it. The same people who called Brokeback Mountain “important,” “a landmark,” and a “near-masterpiece” are ignoring Gosnell, which tells you everything you need to know about them and it.
Go see it. Find a theater, buy the DVD, do something. But go see it.
(In my latest novel, The Holy Warrior and the Last Angel, several scenes took place in and around Philadelphia, including Gosnell’s clinic at 3801 Lancaster. I wrote the book long before I saw this movie.)