Gosnell (Film Review)

Gosnell is subtitled the Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer, signaling a true-crime story. The film is that, and more. For all the horror and injustice inherent in the crimes of Dr. Kermit Gosnell in Philadelphia, this movie is about ordinary people and how they went about clearing away the horror and bringing justice to victims.

In Gosnell, the focus is on people, not on issues or causes. Therein lies the film’s strength.

The real-life Kermit Gosnell is serving life in prison after being convicted in of three counts of first-degree murder, one count of manslaughter, and a host of lesser charges. He got away with murder and a filthy clinic for many years, as authorities in Pennsylvania – Republican and Democrat alike – determined that regulation and oversight of abortion facilities was bad for women. Politics collided with women’s health.

The result at Gosnell’s abortion “clinic”: women died, women suffered, and children who survived attempted late-term abortion were ghoulishly murdered. Body parts from aborted children were kept like trophies; leaking bags of medical waste littered the facility. Gosnell’s crimes were discovered by authorities only by accident, as police raided the clinic as part of a drug investigation.

In the hands of an inept screenwriter or the wrong director, this true-crime story could have gone badly awry.  The makers of Gosnell got it right. The script leans heavily on trial transcripts and a grand jury report, yet dialogue flows naturally. The filmmakers thankfully manage largely to avoid melodrama; the sensational subtitle of the film is an exception.

The film’s subject matter made conventional funding hard to come by. The team behind the movie resorted to crowdfunding, and 30,000 people donated a total of $2.3 million to bring Gosnell to the screen.

Individual human beings matter in this film, including the women who came to Gosnell for abortions. The only judgment that viewers are invited to make regarding the women is about the mistreatment to which they were subjected.

The film takes time to do something that Philadelphia health authorities never did: tell the story of Karnamaya Mongar,  who came to Gosnell for an abortion. She wound up dead from an overdose of drugs administered by a poorly-trained staff acting under Gosnell’s direction. Eventually, Gosnell was convicted of manslaughter in her death, no thanks to the state and local health authorities who failed to inspect Gosnell’s facility for more than a decade.

The first glimmer of justice for Gosnell’s patients came thanks to police, most of them indifferent to abortion, who carried out a drug raid and discovered much more than they bargained for. They had no political agenda. They simply did their jobs and followed the evidence.

Dean Cain portrays Detective James Wood, engaging and friendly. His laconic partner, Stark, is played by AlfonZo Rachel, better known for his social commentaries on various media platforms.

At times during the film, the scenes of investigation are so ill-lit as to be irksome. One strains to see what’s happening on the screen- can’t there be more light?  All that can be seen at one time is what’s illuminated by a single police officer’s flashlight: a dirty piece of equipment, bloody linens, quick (but never gratuitous) views of Gosnell’s “trophies.” No gore, no exaggeration, yet those glimpses pack a punch.

Evidence from Gosnell’s office and home landed on the desks of prosecutors in Philadelphia who harbored no illusions about the trouble that would accompany the prosecution of an abortionist. Lead prosecutor Lexi McGuire  – a composite character played by Sarah Jane Morris – is pro-choice, but she refuses to look the other way when investigators bring her evidence of children killed by Gosnell after they survived attempted abortion. Like the investigators, she’s an ordinary person who does her job, and in so doing finds herself changed.

Earl Billings is unsettling as Kermit Gosnell. Unflappable in the face of investigators, bizarrely concerned about the welfare of his cats and turtles, calmly playing piano as police and prosecutors search through his files, Billings’s Gosnell seems like an affable if slightly ditzy grandfather. His face gives no clue to his taste for carnage. The screenwriters’ version of the doctor tracks closely with the documentation of the actual case and with interviews Gosnell has granted since his conviction.

Ironically, the only over-the-top characterization in the film comes from the man whose direction keeps the film understated. Director Nick Searcy plays Gosnell’s attorney, an expensively-clad shark who defends Gosnell with fierce and noisy passion. He chips away at the numerous charges against his client, but he can’t quite make jurors forget Karnamaya Mongar or the photos of babies with their spines “snipped.”

Gosnell’s office was raided in 2010. The trial was in 2013. During all that time, the Philadelphia Inquirer covered the case as a local-crime story, while most other media outlets ignored it. Finally, during the trial, national reporters were goaded (shamed?) into covering the story as a few journalists called attention to Gosnell. In the movie, the intrepid few who covered the case from day one are blended to create the character Molly Mullaney, a blogger (or “citizen journalist,” as she crisply introduces herself), played with attitude by Cyrina Fiallo.

Gosnell is based in part on the book by the same name by Ann McElhinney and Phelim McAleer, husband-and-wife authors who documented the trial and later teamed up to produce the film. In the book, McElhinney describes how her own views were affected by the doctor’s crimes.

I never trusted or liked pro-life activists. Even at college I thought them too earnest and too religious….

Fast forward to April 2013 and Kermit Gosnell’s trial in Philadelphia, when everything changed….[T]he images shown in the courtroom were not from activists, they were from police detectives and medical examiners and workers at the 3801 Lancaster Ave. clinic….What they said and the pictures they showed changed me. I am not the same person I was.

A story so powerful deserves to be told with care, and Gosnell meets the challenge.

After viewing the film, I went back to re-read the grand jury report that led to Gosnell’s trial. It underscores how much restraint was exercised by the makers of Gosnell as they brought the story to the screen.

Had state and local officials performed their duties properly, Gosnell’s clinic would have been shut down decades ago. Gosnell would have lost the medical license that he used to inflict irreparable harm on women; to illegally abort viable, late-term fetuses; and to kill innumerable babies outside the womb….Let us say right up front that we realize this case will be used by those on both sides of the abortion debate. We ourselves cover a spectrum of personal beliefs about the morality of abortion. For us as a criminal grand jury, however, the case is not about that controversy; it is about disregard of the law and disdain for the lives and health of mothers and infants. We find common ground in exposing what happened here, and in recommending measures to prevent anything like this from ever happening again.


Gosnell premieres nationwide on Friday, October 12, 2018. See gosnellmovie.com for a list of theaters.