Lake of Fire is a masterpiece, a landmark accomplishment in the history of documentary cinema. I can’t recommend it to everyone – its uncompromisingly explicit medical footage of abortions will be impossible for some viewers to sit through, and its straightforward inclusion of loony-bird fringe arguments on the anti-abortion side may upset both pro-life and pro-choice members of the audience.
But while it’s certainly flawed, it is a brilliant formal achievement and an extraordinarily provocative example of the cinema of ideas. The black-and-white footage, some shot by director Tony Kaye, some from other sources, has all been digitally enhanced to have the same sharp, silvery, bright, laser-focused look. This is not superficial slickness, but a superbly effective way to glue your eyes to the screen. You’ve never seen a movie that looks like this. (I saw a high-definition video projection at Chicago’s wonderful Gene Siskel Center; I can only hope other venues will maintain the high visual standard.)
In 152 minutes, Kaye (American History X) includes a wide range of material: many talking heads, but also documentary footage of events as they happened, as well as local news coverage and even a propaganda film made by anti-abortion activists. (The film was more than a decade in the making, and the sense of events unfolding is quite powerful in the first half.)
The intent is to avoid taking a point of view, to present arguments for and against legal abortions without evaluating them. The results are certainly skewed by including the most extreme pro-life advocates, whose allegedly Bible-based rhetoric verges on insanity and whose actions lead to criminal prosecution and a death penalty for the murderer of an abortion-clinic physician. None of the pro-choice voices ever come close to this sort of appalling and over-the-top quality, and so the film may be accused of pro-choice bias.
But no one after seeing this film will ever be able to make a straight-faced argument that a developing fetus is a non-human “clump of cells.” Nor will anyone who sees it ever forget the emotional journey of its last half hour, as we accompany a young woman to an abortion clinic, and watch every step of the process. Her tears after the procedure become our own. This is a movie intended to shake you up, and unless you are made of stone, it absolutely will.
In fact, another way to look at Kaye’s giving so much screen time to the Bible-thumping extremists whose rhetoric gives the film is title is to conclude that this issue is so vexing, with arguments on both sides so convincing yet so unsatisfying, that it drives people insane. That may sound glib, but after seeing this film and hearing the arguments it presents, you too may want to stand on a street corner yelling incoherently. There is no calm, rational answer to the abortion issue.
There is one sequence that made me uncomfortable and seems a bad miscalculation. A priest’s mad rant involving Hillary Clinton and short skirts as they relate to our decadent, baby-killing society is given an inordinate amount of screen time. His scabrous idiocy is intercut with a passionate speech made by then-Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, who is fiercely eloquent. The intercutting between these two monologues goes on for several minutes, and one is left wondering at the filmmaker’s intent. My best guess is that since there are many with pro-life views who see Elders as an extremist and a villain and a laughing-stock, it seemed appropriate to pair her with the loon priest – but his irrational rhetoric represents only his own sad mind, not anyone else’s. The effect is unsavory and uncharacteristically off-key compared to the rest of this amazing film.
More successful are the lucid and riveting talking-head interviews with academics such as Alan Dershowitz and Noam Chomsky (whatever your opinions of these two, you may be surprised by what they say here). And there is an astonishing sequence that follows the true story of Norma McCorvey, the real life Jane Roe in Roe vs. Wade, now a born-again anti-abortion activist! The irony is brilliantly conveyed.
See Lake of Fire as soon as you can, if you dare. Its release will obviously be a limited one, but the strong-hearted (and strong-stomached) will not want to miss it. It is by far the strongest film I have seen in 2007.