After four years in production, "Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer," a feature film about the arrest, trial and conviction of the notorious Philadelphia abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, finally reached theaters on Oct. 19.
Having watched the film, I can say it's better-acted and certainly more professionally and competently produced than the vast majority of independent films that are made for Christian and/or conservative audiences. Director Nick Searcy, a character actor whose work I've long admired, shows promise as a filmmaker in his directorial debut.
However, not only is “Gosnell” seriously lacking in local authenticity, but it propagates multiple false myths that came out of the Kermit Gosnell saga, most notably the one about a supposed “media coverup” of the case.
Gosnell, who ran a West Philadelphia abortion clinic that operated for decades with virtually no standards of patient safety or medical ethics, was arrested in 2011 and convicted in 2013 on three counts of first-degree murder, with the case soon emerging as a cause célèbre for the anti-abortion movement.
One thing that's striking about the film is just how un-Philadelphia it is.
“Gosnell” was not filmed locally, as it substituted locations in Oklahoma for Philadelphia. There was no local premiere for “Gosnell,” nor was it screened for the area's film critics, and it doesn't appear the filmmakers made any effort to engage with the area film community.
In the movie itself, none of the characters sound like they’re from Philly, and the streets don't look anything like Philadelphia streets. Yes, there are numerous Center City skyline establishing shots, and at one point someone mentions the previous day’s Eagles game. But when it comes to showcasing the authentic Philly experience, this is no “Rocky.” It's not even an “Invincible.”
Also, don't expect to see any recognizable Philadelphia people. The names have been changed for most of the lawyers and other principals in the trial, possibly because the real-life judge sued the filmmakers over his depiction. Also, Michael Beach plays the district attorney, "Dan Molinari," who I guess is supposed to represent Seth Williams, but he's for some reason made up (with bald head, glasses and goatee) to look a lot like then-Mayor Michael Nutter.
Dean Cain (Superman from the old "Lois and Clark" TV show) stars as lead detective James Wood, with erstwhile "What's Happening" star Earl Billings portraying Gosnell. Searcy, the director, also plays Gosnell's defense attorney.
"Gosnell" has the story structure of a “Law & Order” episode, with the first half of the movie concentrating on the police investigation, and the second on the murder trial. While the film is clearly made with an anti-abortion agenda, it doesn't get heavy-handed about it until the last 15 or so minutes.
But when it does so, "Gosnell" fully buys into false narratives – most notably the one pushed back in 2013 that there was a "media coverup" of the Gosnell case to minimize Gosnell's crimes and protect the pro-choice cause. This wasn't true then, and it isn't true now.
In reality, the Gosnell case was covered extensively by the local media in Philadelphia. Former PW editor-writers Tara Murtha and Steve Volk were among the local reporters who covered the case throughout, though certainly not the only ones. Volk later wrote an e-book about the saga, while Murtha authored a definitive takedown of the “cover-up” media narrative.
Feminist and pro-choice writers, rather than ignoring or covering up Gosnell's crimes, were also all over the case. These writers (among them Amanda Marcotte, Jill Filipovic and Irin Carmon) took the position that Gosnell was not a typical abortionist, that it was restrictions and systemic inequities had pushed poor women to his clinic, and that making abortion illegal would serve to drive the process underground and probably lead to more more unsafe and unregulated clinics like Gosnell's.
It's also not true that major national news outlets entirely avoided the case. Sarah Hoye of CNN covered the trial (here's a story she and colleague Mark Morgenstein wrote about it prior to jury selection), as did Maryclaire Dale of the Associated Press, and both of them were reporting about the caseas early as Gosnell's arrest in January 2011.
Cable news may have stayed away from day-to-day coverage of the trial at first, but that included Fox News, an unlikely participant in a supposed pro-abortion cover-up. There were multiple reasons for this, from the lack of cameras in Pennsylvania courtrooms, to a gag order placed on participants, to the custom that national media usually stays away from city murder trials, even ones that are prominent locally.
And yes, another factor was undoubtedly the national media's established tendency to not give all that much attention to crime victims who are poor and/or of color.
The film exaggerates this "cover-up" to a comically misleading degree. The media is represented entirely by a young female blogger who's the lone reporter in the courtroom. In reality, there was never a time, during the trial, when only one reporter (or no reporters) was covering it.
Overall, "Gosnell" doesn't come close to making the case that political or pro-choice bias was behind the national media's coverage decisions.
The film also overstates just how much doubt there was that Gosnell would be convicted (there was never very much). Gosnell is not, by any objective measure, "America's greatest serial killer." And while the film is certainly interested in conflating Gosnell's grisly crimes with legalized abortion itself, it doesn't successfully make that charge stick, either.
"Gosnell" is certainly produced with a level of craft and professionalism higher than, say, Dinesh D'Souza's documentaries or those mediocre "Atlas Shrugged" adaptations. It’s clearly meant to appeal to a like-minded audience. But the film doesn't accurately represent the city it's set in, nor a large swath of the facts of the story it tells.