A movie on the subject of abortion that doesn’t sadden, outrage, shock, or politicize some of the people some of the time isn’t doing its job. And by this measure, Lake of Fire is a success. It’s impossible to watch Tony Kaye’s theatrically supercharged, equal-opportunity button-pusher without experiencing a welter of emotions — which is just what the filmmaker planned. Here, after all, are some who consider abortion to be murder (sometimes killing to make their point), others who support the right to choose, and a couple of women who exercise those rights on camera.
The title itself, a reference to a biblical notion of hell reserved for sinners, is a demand for attention; Kaye, who exercised his right to artistic soapbox oratory in 1998’s American History X, is not a filmmaker with much use for limbo. Shot in dramatic black and white (or is it shades of gray?) that lends its subjects and settings a heightened sense of crisis and journalistic gravitas, the movie wanders from opinion to opinion about the ” rightness” or ” wrongness” of terminating a pregnancy, provided by commentators of certified intensity of purpose. The women, including Sarah Weddington, who argued for ”Jane Roe” in the precedent-setting 1973 Supreme Court case of Roe v. Wade, tend to be photographed in unforgiving near-surgical close-up, while the men, including scholar Noam Chomsky, and Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry, are given kinder visual breathing room.
But the philosophizing of talking heads, however well-spoken, lulls in comparison with the direct pain felt watching a prematurely aged 28-year-old woman before, during, and after her own very real abortion; it’s not her first in a hard life of domestic abuse. Or the fury felt hearing judgmental antiabortion activists claiming God on their side while advocating death to doctors who perform the legal procedure. Or the moral disturbance of seeing a minuscule fetal hand on a tray of discards after a 20-week termination.
Kaye famously worked on Lake of Fire for many years, and much of that time was spent, no doubt, getting just the right interview footage from just the right roster of proponents for each side of the argument. (In the course of the project’s long gestation period, bombings of women’s health clinics have become less of a threat to those who defend legal abortion than the increasingly conservative composition of the Supreme Court.) I have no problem with anyone — even the most infuriating dogmatist — speaking his or her views on the subject, nor do I mind any of the graphic bluntness. I do, though, get exasperated with Kaye’s distracting fondness for graphic stunts. Accompanied by undistinguished liturgical music, close-ups on religious iconography tell me nothing pertinent to any argument. And absolutely every person interviewed is first identified in upside-down typography that then spins and rights itself. Why? Viewer opinions about life and death provoked by Lake of Fire are not likely to flip, but they sure will get shaken. B