Movies Sanctity of Life

Movie Review: Gosnell

Pr. James Hageman
Written by Pr. James Hageman

On October 12 the movie Gosnell: America’s Biggest Serial Killer will open in theaters nationwide.

The movie is the story of the arrest and trial of Kermit Gosnell, an abortion doctor who killed hundreds, if not thousands, of newborn babies by severing their spinal cords. It stars Earl Billings as Dr Gosnell and Dean Cain as detective James Wood. And it is a movie worth seeing.

I did not know what to expect when I attended a preview screening last week. Many movies with the aura of evangelical Christianity appeal to bad logic or treacly emotion(I submit God Is Not Dead as evidence of the worst of both). Often the acting is sub-par and the production value below industry standards. I was a little worried that my wife and I were about to waste an evening. I also feared that the subject matter might tempt the film’s makers to sensationalize it.

I could not have been more wrong. The evening was no waste, so much so that I will return to see the movie this October. And this time we’ll bring our daughter to it. I also recommend the movie to you. Here’s why:

First, the story, a law-and-order thriller written by veteran screenwriter Andrew Klavan (True Crime), is engaging and well written. It begins with the discovery and arrest of Gosnell, leads us through the trial to the final verdict, and fills in the action with flashbacks. The dialog is believable. The celebratory scene at the end is as much contemplative as triumphalistic.

Second, the pro-life message is subtle and sophisticated. When another (safe and secure!) abortion provider appears on the stand as a witness for the prosecution, defense attorney Mike Cohan, played by Nick Searcy (Justified, The Shape of Water, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri) leads her to admit that her clinic leaves the living babies of botched abortions to die. His conclusion in Gosnell’s defense is that it is actually more humane actively to kill the newborn infant than simply wait for it to die.

Third, what is grisly or obscene takes place off stage–the very definition of obscene. No abortion is depicted. This was particularly pleasing to my wife and me, who have had our fill of gore. And since depictions of the horrific often have the opposite of their intended effect, this was a good decision by the writer and producers. This said, Gosnell is rated PG-13.

Fourth, the part of Gosnell (Earl Billings, Crimson Tide, Parenthood) is believable. He appears as a sort of bumbling, abstracted, brilliant-but-harmless grandpa. Hannah Arendt’s notion of the banality of evil comes to mind. The music does not turn dark when he appears, and there is no sign that he is a butcher. As detectives search his house, he sits at his piano and plays classical music. At worst Gosnell is creepy.

(Apparently this corresponds to the real Gosnell’s character. Phelim McAleer, one of the producers, appeared at the screening and described a visit he and his wife, co-producer Ann McElhinney, made to Gosnell in prison. McAleer said Gosnell loved to show how smart he is, mentioning that he was reading the Koran in two different translations. At one point Gosnell put his hand on McElhinney’s knee and flirted, singing Jacques Brel songs to her.)

Fifth, media reaction (or lack of reaction) to the Gosnell trial is a major motif. One of my own memories of the Gosnell affair is that the major media were nowhere to be found.  The news was spread by bloggers. In the movie, those bloggers (including Mollie Hemingway) are represented by an unnamed character played by Cyrina Fiallo (Community).

Finally, the appeal of Gosnell is to our humanity. Bare logic and manipulation of emotion will not, in the end, win the day for the pro-life cause. Gosnell left me with the understanding that this is not what humans ought to do to other humans, and with a strengthened commitment to the pro-life cause.

For these reasons you should see Gosnell.

About the author

Pr. James Hageman

The Rev. James Hageman is the pastor of Our Redeemer Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Overland, Mo. He graduated from Concordia Theological Seminary, Ft. Wayne, Indiana.

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