Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz relates an anecdote that illustrates the approach to the abortion issue that filmmaker Tony Kaye uses in Lake of Fire: A rabbi is asked to resolve a marital dispute. After he hears the husband's side, he tells him, "You're right!" Then he listens to the wife's story and tells her, "You're right!" One of the rabbi's students protests that they can't both be right. The rabbi confirms, saying "You're right!"
No issue causes deeper chasms in the U.S. than abortion. Politicians dread talking about it because they realize it's a contentious "no-win" issue certain to alienate 50% of mainstream America no matter which side of the divide they land on, so they attempt to dance around abortion like Fred Astaire but too often get tangled up in convoluted rhetoric designed to obfuscate their position. Wisely Kaye avoids polished glib pronouncements by professional pundits, opting to highlight kooks, extremists, and ordinary people mined from the footage he's shot over the past 16 years.
Provocative and disturbing (and occasionally stomach churning), Lake of Fire graphically lays out the arguments of both the pro-life and the pro-choice camps as even handed as any person possibly could. Thankfully, the film is shot in stark black and white, lessening the odds that audiences will barf when viewing tiny arms and legs mixed with other remains. This occurs early in the film after an anonymous woman has an abortion, but just when I was tempted hit the pause button, Kaye switches to less messy material. In fact, he covers almost every conceivable aspect of the issue during the film's 152 minute running time. Ordinarily this would tax the audience, but Kaye's selection of advocates is so intensely provocative that time is no issue.
I defy anyone to discern Kaye's personal viewpoint—though his tenor likely matches the peaceful logic espoused by left-wing Village Voice writer Nat Hentoff, a secular humanist who firmly believes that life begins whenever a sperm and egg unite and should not be interrupted. Or he likely identifies with the reasoned approach of Dershowitz, who forcefully argues for abortion rights yet personally is moved by the sonogram of his unborn son. Most of the participants are far more passionate about their positions, and a number of the pro-lifers are really scary.
Most frightening is mild mannered Paul Hill, eerily filmed during a court hearing for a pro-life advocate who murdered a doctor who performed abortions. Not only does he proclaim the murderer a hero and advocate that all abortionists should be executed, he goes on to condemn homosexuals and blasphemers as well. As far as he's concerned, anyone who says "God damn it" should be executed. Before long, Hill murders a Florida doctor who practices in an abortion clinic. He receives the death penalty. Naturally, many of the pro-life extremists sympathize with Hill but ironically generally support the death penalty.
Lest you begin to feel that Kaye is allowing pro-life kooks plenty of screen time to "hang themselves" like the neo-Nazis in Blood in the Face, we meet the anonymous "Jane Roe" of the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that has been the beacon for pro-choice. For years Norma McCorvey advocated abortion rights and worked in a clinic, but Roe v. Wade made her a target of extremists that shot up her car and home, forcing her to hole up like a recluse. In 1995 Rev. Phillip Benham's Operation Rescue moved its headquarters right next to her clinic, and McCorvey eventually befriended the evangelical minister and some of his staff members. That led to conversion, and she's now flip-flopped to the pro-life side, essentially becoming their "poster child."
Further evidence of Kaye's balance comes from examining the two women shown going through an abortion—the first anonymously without a visible face wordlessly contains the most graphic condemnation of abortion possible is shown early on. This is bookended with more extensive excerpts from Stacey, following the process from her decision to have the abortion, through the interview process at the clinic, through the procedure, to the aftermath. An abuse victim who's been through four previous abortions, she seems strangely indifferent as she proceeds . . . as if she illustrates pro-choice claims that women will resort to "abortion on demand" as birth control. But as she waits for her boyfriend, suddenly Stacey tears up and breaks down—a reminder that no woman ever takes abortion lightly . . . that every woman debating this decision already goes through a personal "lake of fire" that will be with them for the rest of their life.
No issue in America is as volatile as abortion, and Tony Kaye has fashioned the definitive documentary on the subject that is so gripping that every thinking person will be forced to confront core issues that are likely to change hardcore black and white preconceptions to a shade of grey.