“You guys have never handled a case like this,” District Attorney Dan Molinari (Michael Beach) warns his assistant DAs as they prepare for possibly the most explosive case of their careers.
Bracing for a media circus over the lurid nature of the charges and the hot-button issue of abortion, Molinari continues, “When you get to the courthouse, you are going to be swarmed by reporters. … The courtroom is going to be packed to overflowing. You won’t be able to use the toilet without one of them sticking their heads out to ask you for an interview.”
Then the legal team arrives at the courthouse and … well, it seems the circus isn’t in town after all.
Gosnell is subtitled The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer (echoing the similar subtitle of the book by producers Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney) — but notorious abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell isn’t the only one on trial here.
The Philadelphia Department of Health stands accused of looking the other way and failing to conduct inspections on Gosnell’s clinic for 17 years, despite serious complaints from physicians and others. So is the administration of Gov. Tom Ridge, which opposed abortion-facility inspections as a form of imposing “barriers” to women seeking abortions.
All this is in the 2011 grand jury report recommending charges on multiple accounts of murder and conspiracy, among other offenses, against Gosnell.
But the film — directed by Nick Searcy, who plays Gosnell’s attorney, Mike Cohan — also indicts the mainstream media for losing interest in the Gosnell case after the grand jury report. During the trial, a journalist snapped a photo of the virtually empty press section that went viral on Twitter, drawing national attention to the virtual media blackout and bringing the case back into the spotlight.
“Nobody wanted to say anything,” Assistant DA Alexis “Lexi” McGuire (Sarah James Morris) sums up as she grasps the enormity of the situation. “Nobody wanted to know.”
That line, more than any other, expresses the central theme, which is not so much that abortion is evil, but that the reason the horrors of Gosnell’s charnel house were allowed to continue year after year is that, when it came to abortion, everyone wanted to look the other way.
Venereal disease spread from patient to patient, presumably via unsterilized equipment. Drugs were routinely administered by untrained staffers, leading to the fatal overdose of at least one woman, Karnamaya Mongar (Cindy Klee). Third-trimester fetuses were illegally aborted.
Most notoriously, viable babies delivered alive were routinely slaughtered, their spinal cords snipped with a pair of scissors. All this escaped scrutiny because of a culture of complicity around protecting abortion at all costs.
In a way, Gosnell’s fall plays like an inversion of how the FBI brought down Al Capone on tax-evasion charges because they couldn’t get him on the more serious charges they were really interested in. Here, the opposite happens: An investigation into comparatively trivial offenses forces a reckoning with greater ones nobody wanted to deal with.
When Philly detective Jim “Woody” Wood (Dean Cain, playing the only major character other than Gosnell himself named for the real person he’s based on) joins an FBI raid on Gosnell’s business, they’re only looking for evidence relating to suspected drug trafficking by some of Gosnell’s employees.
They aren’t looking for evidence of health-code violations, like cat feces on the carpet — or fetal body parts in plastic medical-waste bags strewn about and in jars in cabinets and refrigerators.
The magnitude of what they’ve uncovered sneaks up on them, like Gosnell (Earl Billings) himself, unexpectedly appearing behind the assembled law enforcement facing the wrong way in the lobby.
In a film in which a talented cast is a key strength, Billings anchors the production with his disconcertingly amenable, benign manner, only occasionally manifesting flashes of hidden malice and smugness. His first two inquiries are whether there has been a break-in, followed by whether he is under arrest; but in either case he seems entirely cooperative.
Although the disturbing subject matter is treated with about as much restraint as possible, occasional hints suggest that Searcy may have another serial-killer movie, The Silence of the Lambs, in the back of his mind.
Like Clarice Starling, Lexi is introduced jogging with her hair in a ponytail; later, she is obliged to take the lead in a disturbing post-mortem examination. There are possible echoes of Clarice’s arrival at Buffalo Bill’s house of horrors with its dungeon basement in the two raid sequences on Gosnell’s facility and on his house.
Other echoes of Silence are based in fact, not artistic license. Like Buffalo Bill, Gosnell is attached to exotic, endangered pets — rare turtles rather than moths — and, where Bill doted on a pampered dog, Gosnell is a crazy old cat person.
A bizarre moment in which Gosnell sits at his piano in his bathrobe serenely playing classical music during the police raid on his house initially struck me as an over-the-top allusion to Hannibal Lecter’s artistic predilections and fondness for classical music (notably the set piece in which Lecter, in his bathrobe and surrounded by his artwork, enjoys classical music after taking down a couple of cops).
To my surprise, though, an end-credits gallery of real-life photos and video includes actual footage documenting the real Gosnell doing exactly what the film depicts.
Despite his charm, the impression Gosnell eventually portrays is that of a psychopath, possibly a sociopath. The squalor of his clinic and basement clearly points to mental illness; to some, his gruesome trophy collection might suggest demonic influence.
Yet the production in no way suggests a horror movie or even a thriller. Instead, it has the general shape and feel of an episode of Blue Bloods or Law & Order.
Although Wood is Catholic — a fact Searcy’s defense attorney Cohan tries to make hay of in court, suggesting that his client is the target of a religious inquisition — religion is not a notable theme. (There’s probably more Catholicism in an average episode of Blue Bloods.)
Nor does Gosnell overtly condemn abortion. Not that the pro-life message is exactly subtle. Take a courtroom exchange in which Cohan, cross-examining an abortion practitioner called by the prosecution to highlight how aberrant Gosnell’s methods were, tries to show that her own methods and Gosnell’s aren’t that different.
This is ostensibly to defend Gosnell, but its significance for the filmmakers is the reverse. (An opening title claims that “most incidents portrayed are exact representations of court transcripts, police interviews or eyewitness accounts”; I would be interested to know whether this line of questioning happened as depicted.)
Still, the fact is that not a single character identifies as pro-life or defends the pro-life position, and the major characters, including Wood, are explicitly or implicitly “pro-choice.” That includes Lexi, in theory, despite her idyllic family life with five beautiful children, including an adorable baby whose very existence is the antithesis of everything Gosnell stands for.
We might guess that a blogger named Molly Mullaney (Cyrina Fiallo), a composite character who stands in for a number of real-life journalists and writers (including JD Mullane, the actual journalist who took that viral photo of the empty courtroom), is pro-life, but she only ever talks about the facts of the case.
Even in a not very subtle film, there are moments of admirable comparative restraint. When the newly arraigned Gosnell expresses concern to the judge (Eleanor T. Threatt) about the neglected turtles in his clinic, the judge orders the DA’s office to take responsibility for his rare pets. To Lexi’s objections, the judge admonishes, “You are going to have to figure out how to deal with these vulnerable creatures.” This line obviously suggests any number of ironic pro-life ripostes, but the filmmakers manage to resist the temptation.
Cinematically, the crowd-funded production, shot on a comparative shoestring budget, is competent but undistinguished, with a few standout sequences. The film opens with a prologue in two shots that are thoughtfully composed, one of which turns out to be, in retrospect, a kind of point-of-view shot from the perspective of a dead fetus.
This idea is taken even further in a later flashback explicitly shot from a fetal point of view, with a blurry view of Gosnell’s face looming over it, a whooshing heartbeat on the soundtrack. Both point-of-view shots end with a sharp snapping sound: a virtual camera click in the first; a pair of scissors in the second: the film’s most explicit pro-life message.
Like the odious military man he played in The Shape of Water, Searcy’s Cohan is clearly the guy we’re meant to root against. I would have preferred a film that dared to depict both sides as they see themselves: each believing themselves in the right and trying to win us over.
Gosnell tells a story worth telling, and does so reasonably well, but while it avoids actual preaching, it’s still addressed to the choir. That doesn’t make it a bad film, but it could have been a better one.
Deacon Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.
Caveat Spectator: Graphic descriptions of standard and nonstandard abortion procedures, disturbing medical complications and other mature themes; limited disturbing images, including glimpses of body parts; some crude language and mild cursing. Older teens and up.