Review: Lake of Fire

Lake of Fire is filmed in black of white. It’s worth noting that like all films we term “black and white,” its actually rendered in various shades of grey. And Tony Kaye’s documentary about abortion in America is careful to show that the issue’s history and moral questions are not black and white.

Lake of Fire is also an epic. At over two and a half hours and packed with the grizzly extremes of both basic positions on the issues, it’s probably not for everyone. Views of aborted fetuses, especially those of around three months, are hard to see. So too is it difficult to see some of the most cold-blooded and calculated doctor-killers to emerge from the context of the religious right. But at no time does Mr. Kaye’s long-in-development documentary judge either of these troubling extremes.

Kaye’s style is a form of extreme naturalism that, wisely I believe, eschews narration and other forms to impute meaning on the events that it unfurls before the audience. Where Kaye stands on the issue is completely and mercifully unclear. It thus goes without saying that those looking for a defense of their position on the issue will find the film grating.

Everyone from the most extreme perspectives on the right and left are seen. Noam Chomsky, the famous leftist, mostly stands to raise questions. The always-difficult Peter Singer is there assert that yes, a fetus is a person, but a lesser one because it has no expressed desire to live. (Regardless of the logic of the statement, when first heard Singer’s cold rationalism is jarring.)

From the right, there’s Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry. And the coldness and certitude of the convicted doctor-killer Paul Hill can’t be missed. Perhaps most surprising to me was that Norma McCreevey–the “Roe” of Roe v. Wade–was there. And she’d become a card-carrying member of the pro-life movement. Maybe I was two young or inattentive when such a thing was news, but I was rather shocked.

Much of the film was shot around the peak of the turmoil of the early Clinton years. Were I to fault the film, which is truly artful and tender in it’s handling of a difficult issue, it’s that footage from different eras tends to run together. It can be hard to tell what events and interview are from the 1993-1996 era and which were shot when the film was resurrected around 2005. It’s minor problem that does little damage on an issue known for dead-lock and stasis, but it can be a distraction.

On the whole, it’s a great film and a difficult one. If there’s a central thesis, it may be that no stance on this issue is unassailable, no position safe from reasonable and difficult questions. The issue is fraught with moral dilemmas for all people and all positions on the issue, and Lake of Fire makes that point abundantly clear. The film’s comfort with the ambiguity of the issue can be hard to take, but it’s also just what the issue requires.