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The first surprising thing about the movie Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer is that it is, in fact, an actual movie. By this I mean that it has good production values, notable talent on both sides of the camera, and artistic merit. It is definitely not one of those amateurish undertakings that you might feel somewhat compelled to give a pass to simply because the filmmakers mean well. Gosnell is the real deal.
The second surprise is that not only is Gosnell a real movie, but it’s also not a bad movie. Given the film’s full title, there’s little doubt where the filmmaker’s sympathies lie, and it’s not with Kermit Gosnell or the pro-choice movement. And yet, even though its point of view is never in doubt, Gosnell refuses tosuccumb to the temptation to lapse into preachy propaganda. Instead, the film tells an actual story, and an involving one at that.
It begins with a visibly distraught woman in nurse’s scrubs taking a picture of … something. It’s a moment of great importance to the overall narrative, but it’s not until much later we find out how or why. Instead, the focus shifts to detectives Wood and Stark (Dean Cain and Alfonzo Rachel) who are in the middle of a drug bust. Information obtained from this operation ultimately leads law enforcement to the doorstep of Dr. Kermit Gosnell (Earl Billings), whose abortion clinic has apparently been doling out large amounts of illegally prescribed narcotics.
Once inside, the authorities are quick to realize something far worse than a few under-the-exam-table drug deals is going on in Gosnell’s offices. If you’ve already watched last year’s documentary, 3801 Lancaster: American Tragedy, then you’re already more than aware of the horrors awaiting the police as they searched the building. If not, and you want all the gruesome details, go watch that movie. as Gosnell itself purposely averts its gaze from most of the graphic discoveries of that day.
What emerges from the initial search and seizure is evidence suggesting Gosnell has been delivering live babies, perhaps hundreds of them, and then killing them. This prompts the District Attorney’s office to initiate murder charges against Gosnell who, if found guilty, would be confirmed as the most prolific serial killer in our country’s history. There’s a catch, though. The lead prosecutor, Alexis McGuire (Sarah Jane Morris), is given instructions that the case must in no way be framed as an attack on the practice of abortion itself. If it is, her political aspirations are over.
From that point onward, the film becomes a standard courtroom drama, with the film’s director (veteran actor Nick Searcy) doing double duty as Gosnell’s defense attorney. It’s here that the aforementioned picture from the start of the film is reintroduced, though we the audience are never allowed to see it. Instead, the camera focuses on the faces of the individual jurors as they are shown the image and their reactions tell us all we need to know. It is an artistic decision that ultimately works much better than if the film had taken the exploitative route and shocked us with the image itself.
Along with this, the film also wisely finds a way make its argument against abortion without bringing everything to a screeching halt so someone can deliver a sermon. It accomplishes this by having Gosnell’s own lawyer grill another abortion provider on the perfectly legal procedures she herself utilizes. His intention is to show to the jury that Gosnell is no monster because, unsanitary conditions notwithstanding, his methods are not so far removed from those used at other clinics. Of course, what this comparison actually achieves is to demonstrate the horrific nature of all abortion, no matter whether the laws are followed or not.
Obviously, audiences sympathetic to such a viewpoint will find much to recommend in Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer. What remains to be seen is if anyone on the other side of the issue will find anything compelling in the film’s presentation. Perhaps not, as, like the mainstream media at Gosnell’s trial, most won’t even show up to see it. But for the small number who do, maybe Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer will have one more surprise up its celluloid sleeve. Maybe it might actually change a mind or two.