Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer tells the story of how justice found Kermit Gosnell. For decades, Gosnell had run an unsanitary abortion clinic while committing multiple acts of medical malpractice and killing untold numbers of newborn preemies who had survived botched abortions.
The film recreates the conditions in Gosnell’s nightmarish house of horrors with brutal accuracy. The film takes you inside Gosnell’s abortion clinic, recreating with painstaking details the medical office swarming with cats and littered with cat excrement, as well as an accumulation of trash and medical waste. This disturbing and revolting scene continues throughout the film. The audience discovers the dead baby parts stored in the fridge as well as the dead bodies of born alive infants he’d killed. Despite the film’s best attempts to be tasteful, the depiction remains absolutely sickening. Perhaps one of the worst moments was when Gosnell (Earl Billings) warned the police about going into his basement because he was embarrassed about its condition. Given what we’d seen that he seemed to think was genuinely okay, that was a bad sign of things to come.
In addition to portraying the horror of Gosnell’s crimes, Gosnell shows the reluctance of prosecutors and public health officials to deal with it, with one official saying Governor Tom Ridge (R-PA) had ordered a stop to all inspection of abortion clinics. The story only came to light when Detective James Woods (Dean Cain) and his partner (Alonzo Rachel) stumbled onto the clinic’s atrocities while investigating a drug case. They face resistance all the way with warnings the case had better not be about stopping legal abortions. Their investigation uncovers unsanitary conditions, severe injuries, illegal performance of late-term abortions, the killing of born infants through sniping their spinal cords, and the maiming and injury of women, as well as at least one death.
The film addresses the issue of abortion itself in a limited way, as the movie’s protagonists are a pro-choice police officer and a pro-choice prosecutor (Sarah Jane Morris). In many ways, this story is akin to the Catholic sexual abuse scandal. Just as many Catholic leaders avoided confronting the truth about abusive priests to avoid hurting the church, many pro-abortion public officials avoided dealing with Gosnell for fear it would hurt legal abortion. The difference is the church abuse scandal was shouted from the mountain tops in the media, while the media sought to sweep the Gosnell story under the rug and forget about it. This is also something the media explores as the Assistant District Attorney (after being warned by her boss of intense media scrutiny) finds the media section in the courtroom empty.
The story’s pro-life notes are subtle. A judge allows the Gosnell case to come forward reluctantly, afraid abortion’s legality might be challenged. She is also emphatic about taking steps to protect Gosnell’s endangered (illegally obtained,) turtles calling for steps to be taken to protect “these vulnerable creatures.” In contrast, the state spent decades refusing to protect women and their vulnerable late term babies from Gosnell’s butchery.
In another scene, another abortion clinic operator testifies of how Gosnell’s actions are not typical of abortionists. On cross-examination, Gosnell’s attorney gets her to describe how abortions are done in her own clinic and how they would handle a “born alive” situation, revealing they would offer “comfort care” (i.e. they keep the baby as comfortable as possible while they let the baby die.) This lead’s Gosnell’s attorney to suggest that Gosnell’s euthanasia method is more humane.
The film is a competently told procedural drama. Some critiques have said the quality of a made for TV movie or an episode of Law and Order. I don’t think that’s an unfair characterization, but I doubt this story would have benefitted from a higher budget. It would work fine as a TV movie, but no major network will touch it. That’s why Gosnell ended up in theaters.
The acting’s solid. Cain turns in the type of good performance audiences have come to expect of the veteran actor. Billings did a fantastic job bringing Gosnell to life, capturing the character’s superficial geniality and how disturbed Gosnell was. Billings’ performance would probably be considered Oscar-worthy if his role weren’t so politically incorrect. Morris is also great as the prosecutor, a mother of five who recently had a baby. She becomes more horrified and more determined to stop Gosnell the more she learns of his crimes and all he’s gotten away with. Director Nick Searcy plays Gosnell’s attorney and brings a larger than life presence to the role of Gosnell’s defense counsel.
The film has few flaws. On a technical level, the lawyers in the film get way too close to the witnesses during questioning but as Vlogger D James Stones points out, this is a common error many legal films make. The bigger problem is in the movie is blogger Molly Mullaney (Cyrina Fiallo) provides vital information to the investigation in a way that doesn’t feel natural. She appears to be a composite character meant to represent several different people who played a role in the story in real life. I think this could have been done a little better, so we didn’t get a character that comes off as a plot device.
But overall, it was a good film that tells an important story. Right now, it’s receiving about the same amount of media coverage as the trial itself. This may be part of the reason why the film has grossed just $2.5 million through its first two weeks in theaters.
I wouldn’t say that’s the only reason though. As well-made as Gosnell was, it’s not an easy movie to watch. It reveals the truth about the evil that was allowed to continue due to the indifference of public officials who cared about protecting the image of the abortion industry more than they did the health of the women and the babies born alive in botched abortions. Many people would be content not knowing about this, which makes it easy for the media to ignore it. So while this an important film, it was always going to be a film that had a limited audience who would want to see it.