Th!nkFilm // 2006 // 152 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Ben Saylor (Retired) // April 3rd, 2008
Exploring the issue that divides the world
Few issues are as polarizing as that of abortion. Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court case that legalized abortion in America, divided the nation into pro-life and pro-choice camps instead of settling the issue. Filmmaker Tony Kaye (whose only other feature credit to date is 1998's American History X) spent nearly 20 years working on a documentary on the subject, and the result, Lake of Fire, is a staggering work that takes what is generally thought of as a black-and-white issue and finds plenty of gray areas.
The film, which, interestingly, is filmed in black and white, has plenty of interviews and footage on both sides of the debate featuring people such as Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, MIT linguistics professor Noam Chomsky, Village Voice writer Nat Hentoff, Operation Rescue Founder Randall Terry, and many more. Kaye also includes ample footage of abortion rallies, both pro-life and pro-choice. The pro-life rallies, in particular, are rather disturbing. One especially morbid clip has activist Paul Hill saying that abortionists (among others) deserve to be executed. He followed that philosophy in 1994, when he gunned down abortion provider Dr. John Britton and clinic escort James Barrett. Kaye skillfully shows protesters on both sides, and it's interesting to learn about the different practices of both groups; the pro-choicers going to abortion clinics to help women seeking abortions get into the clinic, and pro-lifers purchasing property next to clinics and then building platforms on the property in order to accost people going into them.
Also fascinating is the trajectory of Norma McCorvey (a.k.a. "Jane Roe"), who gradually came to regret her role in history and has since become a pro-life activist. Her explanation of how her feelings shifted on the issue provides a great example of just how multi-faceted an issue this truly is.
This multi-faceted quality is what makes Lake of Fire such compelling viewing. Rather than rely on the same basic arguments that are always presented by each side ("A joined egg and sperm are a living being," "A woman should be able to decide what to do with her body"), Kaye's interviewees flesh out the issue considerably, with discourse relating to the political, religious, and moral aspects of the debate.
Kaye is not afraid to get graphic with his imagery, which viewers should know going in. The footage he includes shows the results of more than one abortion, and one in particular, where the viewer can clearly see tiny limbs and part of a head, is nothing short of horrifying. There are also graphic photos presented as well.
While it is true that Kaye spends ample time on both pro-life and pro-choice speakers in his film, Lake of Fire is hardly objective. It seemed somewhat strange to me that nearly every pro-life speaker is a fiery religious zealot of some kind, and that most of the pro-choice speakers are calmer, scholarly types. I find it a little hard to believe that Kaye couldn't find less over-the-top individuals who have a pro-life stance. By including the people that he does (and cutting their footage the way he sometimes does), Kaye arguably stacks the deck sometimes in favor of the pro-choice side.
Another element of Lake of Fire that I have mixed feelings on is its music, by Anne Dudley (with some credited to Thomas Tallis as well). The super-dramatic score sometimes feels like overkill; in many of the scenes in which it is included, I think it would have worked just as well or better to leave it out.
Th!nkFilm's DVD of Lake of Fire is pretty light on special features; all that's included is the film's trailer, as well as a gallery of trailers that includes War Dance, Taxi to the Dark Side, Nanking, and Ghosts of Cite Soleil. The image quality varies throughout the film; there is some graininess to some of the footage, to which I would attribute the piecemeal manner in which the film was shot. The 2.0 sound mix isn't going to blow anyone away, but it gets the job done.
All in all, while not perfect, Lake of Fire is an exhaustive, insightful film on a very complex subject. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* English (For Hearing Impaired)
Running Time: 152 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Theatrical trailer