There's a madness to Lake Of Fire, a two-and-a-half hour documentary about abortion in America, that goes hand-in-glove with its staggering achievement. Director Tony Kaye shot the film in 35mm B&W over a 16-year period, risking millions of his own money (and surviving bankruptcy) on a project for which no market exists. It's easy to see how Kaye could get lost in an issue this morally, legally, and politically complex, but he's somehow found his way through to the other side, crafting what's unquestionably the most prismatic film ever made on the subject. Approaching the topic of abortion with any kind of objectivity is impossible, but Kaye keeps his distance and yields equal time to pro-life and pro-choice advocates alike, always with an eye towards the bigger picture. In the end, he wrangles their testimony into a delicate balance of religious and philosophical ideas, shifting political resolutions, and, finally, a devastatingly personal look at what "choice" really entails.
Opening during the Clinton years, Kaye tracks the general erosion of abortion rights over the last two decades, thanks to the relentless intimidation campaigns of pro-lifers during the Clinton years and a more conservative political atmosphere in the years that followed. Kaye seeks out fringe-dwellers like John Burt, a former KKK member turned Rescue America leader whom many blame for inspiring a suggestible young man to kill an abortion doctor, and Paul Hill, who received the death penalty in Florida for murdering a doctor he'd stalked for months. (On the spot shortly before the shooting happened, Kaye has chilling interview footage of Hill's victim, who tried to assuage his family's safety concerns by wearing a bulletproof vest to work.) From the fiery rhetoric offered by Burt and Hill, Kaye downshifts to the measured tone of intellectuals like Noam Chomsky, Alan Dershowitz, and Nat Hentoff, as well as other voices from the front lines. He also includes a moving segment on Norma McCorvey, a.k.a. "Jane Roe," a pro-choice icon who found Jesus and now speaks for the other side.
The question of when life begins, when it can be exterminated, and society's role in determining when the law should intervene in this continuum is, of course, a gray area, and Lake Of Fire invites views from all along the vast spectrum of opinion. Kaye doesn't flinch from disturbing ideas and images: At three different points—and for distinct reasons each time—he shows explicit footage of the abortion procedure; such images have long been effective tools of propaganda for the pro-life movement, but they're repurposed brilliantly here as part of a clear-eyed look at what abortion means. If nothing else, the film puts the lie to the notion that an abortion could ever be frivolous or lightly considered. On that point, everyone in Lake Of Fire agrees, whether they acknowledge the other side or not.