Score: 3 stars *** out of 4 ****
For the first 85 minutes of this succinct and blistering 93 minute movie, the filmmakers painstakingly eschew politics as it might apply to differing opinions regarding abortion on both the far right and far left. Despite its beyond-clunky and heavy-handed title, the actual content in “Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer” succeeds as both a procedural drama and a damning commentary of the non-coverage by the national media of a seminal, watershed event in American history.
For well over four decades, the Philadelphia-based Dr. Kermit Gosnell (a chilling and bemused Earl Billings) provided abortion services to mostly low-income and minority women, all the while being the target of multiple malpractice lawsuits, operational infractions, and his participation as a principal figure in the infamous 1972 Mother’s Day Massacre.
Director Nick Searcy and the three screenwriters wisely avoid Gosnell’s checkered past and instead focus on what he did and how it came to light and how none of it had anything to do with abortion. While working a sting operation to apprehend prescription drug scammers, Detective James “Woody” Wood (Dean Cain, also a co-producer) busted one of Gosnell’s employees, a “nurse” without any medical training who folded like a deck chair before questioning even began and gave the police (and the DEA and the FBI) everything they needed to conduct a raid.
Once inside Gosnell’s clinic, the authorities bore witness to contaminated instruments, non-functioning equipment, unaccounted for drugs, refrigerators full of human body parts, bags of “medical waste” which contained fetal corpses and dozens of free range cats and their bountiful excrement.
When Wood presented his findings to the local district attorney Dan Molinari (Michael Beach) and his assistant Alexis McGuire (Sarah Jane Morris), he’s met with indifference but after some minor cajoling, McGuire decides to move forward. Dutifully, Molinari informs McGuire that pursuing such a case would likely kill any future political aspirations she might have as trying a black man performing abortions would be viewed as political and PR poison on multiple levels. Unfazed, McGuire proceeds, visits Gosnell at his equally distressed home, has him arrested, and begins preparing her trial.
It’s worth noting both Wood and McGuire declare they are pro-choice.
At the trial, Gosnell’s high-end attorney Mike Cohan (Searcy) does as good a job as anyone could possibly expect; graying the edges of the law and painting Gosnell as a champion of the underclass and downtrodden. During one riveting scene Cohan cross-examines Dr. North (Janine Turner), another abortion doctor practicing in Philadelphia who claimed to have performed over 30,000 procedures. Wavering but never breaking, North is careful to inject facts that finely define laws regarding what can and cannot be done before and during an abortion and in the process offered testimony that left little doubt that Gosnell regularly ignored these laws.
The bottom line here is this “Gosnell” movie is going to do little or nothing to change anyone’s mind regarding abortion. Whether you’re pro-life, pro-choice or somewhere in the middle, you’ve come to that point already and no film, however convincing, is capable of ever swaying the masses. The Roe v. Wade decision, declared law in 1973 by the U.S. Supreme Court, is not going away any time soon, even with new arrival of Brett Kavanaugh on the bench. Much to many people’s chagrin on the right, this judicial body rarely if ever reverses its own decisions, a fact many on the left have yet to grasp.
Where “Gosnell” will succeed, however is in perhaps making everyone pay closer attention to the black and white laws regarding the parameters of physicians providing abortions. Kermit Gosnell regularly exceeded these parameters and believed to his core that the laws were flexible, up to interpretation and not applicable to him or his mostly unqualified and untrained employees. Based on the facts laid out in his trial and in this film, Gosnell was found guilty of at least four counts of first degree murder among hundreds of other convictions and he will never see the light of day as a free man again.
Getting the film made at all was a chore as none of the major studios wanted to touch it and when the producers attempted to secure financing from Kickstarter.com, they were told the subject matter was too incendiary and politically volatile. Eventually the budget of $2.1 million was secured through the more politically moderate crowd sourcing site Indiegogo.com in a relatively short two week period. That was in March of 2014. Completed and ready to be released in October, 2015, it took almost three more years before a distribution deal was finally secured this past June.
Michael Clark has written for over 30 local and national media outlets and is currently the only newspaper-based film critic providing original content in the Atlanta Top 10 media marketplace and he recently co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle. Over the last two decades, Mr. Clark has written over 3,500 movie reviews and film related articles for the Gwinnett Daily Post and is one of the scant few conservative-minded U.S. critics. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.