Hollywood frequently portrays mass murders like Charles Manson and the Unabomber, but they avoid Kermit Gosnell like a radioactive petri dish leaking plague virus, even though he racked up more killings than the aforementioned, by at least of factor of hundreds and more likely thousands. That is because Gosnell was an abortion doctor. If you remember the story but tried to avoid it at the time, you are not alone. However, that means many people have a deep misunderstanding regarding the facts of the matter. The full case in chronicled in a surprisingly calm and mostly dispassionate manner in Nick Searcy’s Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer (trailer here), which opens this Friday across the country.
James “Woody” Woods was and still is an undercover Philadelphia narcotics detective who was present during the initial raid on Gosnell’s clinic, targeting a script-selling ring. Yes, this was a side practice among Gosnell’s employees, most of whom had no formal medical training, but were still medicating patients according to a crude color-coded chart Gosnell provided. Once on the premises, the cops and Feds were utterly shocked by the conditions they found. Bags of body parts were piled up on the stairs, stuffed into closets, and crammed into the refrigerator. At one point, Woods and his partner Stark are flabbergasted to find a cupboard filled with jars containing baby-fetus feet. When Stark steps in cat excrement it is not played for laughs because it is not funny.
All of this is real, as viewers can see from actual video of the fateful raid that plays during the closing credits. The state of Gosnell’s clinic, which looks like something out of Naked Lunch, would be disturbing enough, but during questioning, one of his assistants mentions the woman who died. That was Karnamaya Mongar, an immigrant from a Nepal refuge camp, who came in for an abortion, but perished on Gosnell’s table. That starts Woods and Assistant District Attorney Alexis McGuire asking questions, but when the assistant mentions how Gosnell would snip the spinal cords of live-born babies, it turns their blood cold.
McGuire, a pro-choice mother of five and her politically ambitious boss, DA Dan Molinari insist the case is not about abortion, but Gosnell’s slick lawyer, Michael Cohan is eager to make it a referendum on reproductive rights. The truth is more complicated than either counselor wishes to acknowledge, starting with the fact Gosnell’s clinic went uninspected from 1993 to 2010, because the state health department was specifically instructed to give abortion clinics a pass. Yet, as McGuire archly points out in the film, nothing that happened in his clinic had anything to do with women’s health.
Evangelical films have a bad rep, because many of them are poorly made and relentlessly preachy. Gosnell should not be lumped in with them for many reasons, starting with the fact it is not an Evangelical film. It really doesn’t tell viewers how they should feel about the abortion issue (and there is absolutely no God talk), but it exposes how politics allowed Gosnell’s horror show to continue.
Veteran character actor Nick Searcy (Justified, The Shape of Water) finally follows-up his 1997 directorial debut, Carolina Low by showing some remarkably shrewd instincts helming Gosnell. He side-steps all the potential pitfalls for hot-button issue dramas, shunning overheated rhetoric and outraged histrionics. Although the death and dismemberment uncovered at the Gosnell clinic takes an emotional toll on McGuire (and believably so), Searcy and screenwriters Andrew Klavan (the novelist), Phelim McAleer, and Ann McElhinney stick with a just-the-facts approach. It is worth noting a particularly distressing piece of evidence is never shown to viewers, so nobody can fairly accuse Searcy of waving bloody shirts. To a great extent, this film is the Gosnell-inspired Dragnet episode we will never get to see.
Searcy also supplies plenty of energy and attitude as the colorful Cohan. As Woods, Dean Cain looks grittier than you remember him from Lois & Clark, while also effectively providing an everyman figure for audiences to identify with. Sarah Jane Morris is terrific portraying the increasingly horrified McGuire, while Michael Beach clearly has a blast chewing the scenery with Machiavellian delight as DA Molinari.
Yet, Earl Billings’ quietly chilling performance as Gosnell is the key to the film. Even when his character is behaving oddly, he is never over the top or cartoonish. However, he vividly conveys Gosnell’s smugness and his absolute certainty he will get away with everything by playing the abortion card, which is deeply unsettling.