Gosnell and the Hypocrisy of Everything

By Tim Winterstein

Halloween is almost upon us, and some people like to watch scary movies. But don’t see the new Halloween or Predator or The Nun. If you want a real horror show—because it’s true—go see Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer.

I saw it a couple Fridays ago and, while it’s not going to win any acting or cinematography awards, none of the cinematic shortcomings distract significantly from the story being told. This is one case where the story is so unbelievable, so horrific, so heart-rending, that everything else comes in second.

That’s not to say the acting is bad. Some scenes might seem more television’s Law and Order than award-winning film, but there are definite highlights. In particular, Sarah Jane Morris (as ADA Lexy McGuire) and Earl Billings (as Kermit Gosnell) are compelling and believable. Billings, especially, is convincing in his half-naive, half-psychopath portrayal. Nick Searcy does his thing (one of my favorites in every scene of Justified in which he appeared), though he goes a little over-the-top, big-time defense attorney at moments. But the best actors in this film are those who play the employees and patients of Gosnell’s clinic. These women are impressive in every sense. If they gave out awards for such short appearances on screen, they would deserve to win.

Even so, the criticisms of the film (there are very few, because there are very few notices from anyone other than conservative and pro-life commentators and websites) tend to focus on it being one-sided, or preaching to a choir of pro-life, right-wing, conservative Christians. But that simply begs the question about the nature of that bias. Is it “biased” because it tells only the “pro-life” part of the story, or is it “biased” because the story being told so fundamentally undoes every conventional “pro-choice” narrative? The discussion that is had at multiple points between ADA McGuire and DA Dan Molinari (Michael Beach) as well as with Judge Eleanor Stanley (Eleanor T. Threatt) show the reticence to bring abortion into the case at all. That those scenes are highlighted shows a desire to simply tell a straight story with as little embellishment as possible.

And there are things present that every movie does in telling stories based on true events. Individuals are conflated (including JD Mullane—who has a great op-ed here—and Mollie Hemingway—who played a significant part in blowing open the press absence at the trial—as “Molly Mullaney”) and the timeline is shortened. But this artistic license does not extend, as far as I can tell, to what Gosnell did or didn’t do. In other words, there is literally no need to heighten Gosnell’s actions, simply because they are what he actually did.

I looked up the most egregious things (such as the so-called “Mother’s Day Massacre” in 1972), and no one—regardless of political or moral positions—is disputing that Gosnell was responsible for the things depicted in the film. Some of the unbelievable things to me (the color-coded chart of drugs to give to patients and the hygienic disaster that was the Women’s Medical Society in Philadelphia) are documented with crime-scene photos at the end of the film. Besides that, much of the grand jury and courtroom dialogue, as well as police interviews, are taken verbatim from the actual transcripts. To focus criticism on typical film-making dramatic license, or conflations of time and character, is laughable in light of the main arc of the story. Further, it rings a little hollow when there have been undeniably active attempts to shorten the reach of the film.

This is not at all a graphic film. It doesn’t need to be. The expressions on the faces of those who encounter the reality tells everything. That is the most brutal thing about the whole 90-minute experience: watching Sarah Jane Morris deal with the horror of the case while she’s preparing and while she’s trying the case. Her experience, I think, probably parallels the experience of anyone who either doesn’t know the story or who might be on the fence about this particular case. Her performance is both affecting and effective. (By the way, James Taranto gives excellent insight into what the Gosnell case means for abortion policy in the U.S. here at the Wall Street Journal.)

But, finally, the hypocrisy of everything is what sticks with me nearly two weeks later. The hypocrisy of Gosnell, pretending he’s doing good things for those whom otherwise wouldn’t be served—yet putting white and black patients in different quality rooms. The hypocrisy of the Pennsylvania State Health Department, ostensibly existing to keep people safe, while refusing to investigate complaints about Gosnell’s clinic. The hypocrisy of Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America and other “women’s health clinics” who think that what they’re doing is fundamentally different from what Gosnell did (the scene where Searcy’s character cross-examines the abortionist Dr. North is palpable with ironic sarcasm). The hypocrisy of anyone (myself) who becomes complacent about the Culture of Death in which we live and move and have our being.

See Gosnell in the theater (if you can find it) and let at least a little hole of light be punched in the darkness.

4 thoughts on “Gosnell and the Hypocrisy of Everything

  1. The case of Dr Gosnell, Planned Parenthood, and the entrenched institution of infanticide in America should offend every decent human being, and certainly every professing Christian. But unfortunately it is not offensive enough for too many American Christians, whom we can correctly label as “enablers.” They are enablers willfully and unapologetically simply because they will not take the moral action needed to stop the culture of death at the ballot box. They are not being asked to storm the abortion clinics, nor are they requested to demonstrate in the streets, and their consciences remain apathetic, unmoved, and detached. These are the people who are not moved by photographs of the remains of unborn children brutally killed, primarily in 93 percent of cases because they are unwanted and inconvenient. How do these professing Christians show their indifference? They show it by continually voting with the Democratic Party, a ruthless friend of Planned Parenthood which will keep abortion well funded and alive in America for years to come. A Democratic electorate will ensure that judicial nominees are pro-abortion from the beginning, because Roe vs Wade is a sacred cow in the eyes of most Democrats. So long as millions of professing Christians continue to support and fund Democratic politicians and withhold support from pro-life office seekers, the end of government sanctioned abortion will never take place in this land.

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  2. Thank you for this. My husband and I went to see Gosnell on the first night of its release. I believe there were 12 people in the theater. It was a strong work because it stuck to the truth, no embellishment needed. Horror film, indeed. The ride home from the theater was silent.

    On another note: I could not leave a comment on your “Fatherhood on the Train to Busan” piece because they are closed. I am very grateful to you for the review. I wanted to let you know that I posted a paragraph of it on my Facebook page, with credit to you here. If that is a problem, I will take it down. The operative parts of the post are: “Horror movies seem to be able to go places that otherwise conventional narratives are unable to go…What—to the point—but a horror can make us seriously consider manhood and fatherhood and sacrifice? … But horror is able to sneak past our ultra-modern, learned defenses and strike us in parts of our psyches we pretend to have eradicated.”

    Brilliant. True. Thank you.

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