Gosnell hit No. 10 at the box office after opening on Oct. 12, a more than respectable opening for a film whose $2.3 million budget was raised by a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo. That’s even more impressive considering what the movie is: a gory legal thriller about abortion.
Gosnell has received few major reviews, and it dropped to No. 14 in its second weekend; it has earned $2.7 million overall so far. But the film’s blip onto and off the Top 10 list belies what a phenomenon it has become in conservative media outlets, which have been following the film’s challenges in production, development, and publicity for years. And it’s become a cause célèbre in those circles precisely because of its struggles—both real and imagined. Here is a partial list of entities that the film’s producers have suggested are out to sabotage the film in some way because of its message: NPR, the New York Times, Kickstarter, Facebook, theater owners, film distributors, streaming services, “powerful forces in Silicon Valley, New York and Hollywood,” Tom Arnold, and a Hyatt hotel in Austin, Texas.
The movie is based on the horrific true story of Kermit Gosnell, a doctor who ran an abortion clinic in Philadelphia for decades. He primarily served low-income women, some of whom paid him in cash. Gosnell was accused of regularly delivering live fetuses in the third trimester—past the state’s legal limit for abortion—and then severing their spinal cords. His clinic was grotesquely unsanitary and unsafe; one of his patients died after a procedure. In May 2013, Gosnell was convicted of murder in the case of three infants, of involuntary manslaughter in the case of the patient, and a series of other felony counts.
Gosnell is subtitled “The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer,” and it plays as part legal drama, part horror movie, and part propaganda. It can’t decide if it’s a story about one rogue doctor or about the abortion “industry” overall. In one scene, a doctor testifies that if she accidentally delivered a living fetus, she would administer “comfort care” until it died of natural causes. “It seems like it would be more humane to just take a scissors…” Gosnell’s lawyer replies, suggesting that Gosnell and the typical abortion doctor are not as different as the latter might think. (Producers say much of the dialogue in the court scenes was taken directly from trial transcripts.) The closing credits are set to a song whose chorus goes: “We are the innocents.”
The mainstream media’s lack of interest in the case is a major theme in the movie. In one dramatic scene, the prosecutors prepare for the first day of the trial by discussing how they’ll navigate the hordes of media they expect to greet them at the courthouse. When they arrive, the courthouse steps are empty and so are the multiple benches reserved for the press inside the courtroom. (This detail is based on a photo of empty seats that circulated on conservative sites during the trial.) Things turn around thanks to a feisty tattooed blogger and a major story in the “USA Post”—perhaps a nod to a Kirsten Powers column in USA Today that drew attention to the case at the time.
It’s true that many media outlets ignored the Gosnell story for too long. And it’s also true that some of the obstacles Gosnell has faced are plausibly evidence of institutional discomfort with the film’s subject matter. (The story is an ideological land mine: a murder case in which most of the victims were fetuses that their mothers wanted to abort.) But producer Phelim McAleer, a former investigative journalist, is an experienced conservative provocateur. When I spoke with him, he was full of specific accusations of bias. In August, he said, executive producer John Sullivan inquired about purchasing a sponsorship spot on Fresh Air. An NPR representative told him he would have to edit the ad copy to call Gosnell simply a “doctor,” rather than an “abortionist” or an “abortion doctor.” But NPR’s own reporters had used the phrase abortion doctor in straight news stories, including stories about Gosnell. Gosnell’s producers ended up pulling the ad. (NPR told the Daily Beast, which reported the claim in September, that “Sponsor credits that run on NPR are required to be value neutral to comply with FCC requirements and to avoid suggesting bias in NPR’s journalism.”)
When producers tangled with Kickstarter over hosting their fundraising campaign (McAleer says Kickstarter asked him to change a description of “thousands of babies murdered”), McAleer bought a billboard near the company’s headquarters in Brooklyn that announced he had been “Kicked out by Kickstarter.” When they struggled to find a distributor, they called it a “media coverup.” When some theaters dropped the film in its second weekend—not an unusual occurrence—they suggested it was ideologically driven “suppression.” And the right-wing press took notice. The conservative outlet Newsmax called Gosnell “the movie Hollywood does not want you to see.” “Hollywood Rejects Biopic on Mass Murderer Kermit Gosnell,” read a headline on the anti-abortion site Life Site, which has covered the film’s travails closely. Gosnell was screened at the Values Voter Summit, and star Dean Cain has been interviewed by Tucker Carlson and the Federalist. This week, many anti-abortion outlets covered the story of a Florida college student and conservative commentator who tweeted that watching the film converted her from pro-choice to pro-life.
McAleer previously produced FrackNation, which portrayed fracking in a sympathetic light, and Not Evil Just Wrong, a climate change documentary meant as a rebuttal to An Inconvenient Truth. In 2015, he staged a drama in Los Angeles based on grand jury testimony from the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, that suggested the shooting was justified. When some actors in the show requested changes, and others quit, McAleer claimed censorship and requested more donations on his crowdfunding page. When your audience thrives on stories of its own oppression, it’s easy to turn stumbling blocks into stairs.