Like the detectives and journalists of David Fincher's Zodiac, Tony Kaye's long-gestating Lake of Fire is the work of a man obsessed. Kaye spent 15 years of his life compiling, analyzing and sifting through a gargantuan number of photographs, propaganda videos, interviews, and medical footage just to make some sense of our nation's most popular pink elephant. Even before he was shaving Edward Norton's head and exploring the ever-popular sport of curbing in American History X, Kaye was deeply submerged in this behemoth documentary about the world after Roe vs. Wade.
Kaye's ambition is daunting: He attempts not only to reiterate the dangers of a society where abortion is illegal but also give balanced criticism to the pro-life and pro-choice sects. The latter debate comes easy: Intellectuals from every imagineable background (Noam Chomsky and Alan M. Dershowitz amongst others) give well-thought ponderings on the freedom to control one's body even in the direst of times. It's with the pro-life argument that Kaye hits a brick wall. Of the dozen or so pro-life interviewees, only jazz historian and Village Voice contributor Nat Hentoff makes an intellectually-backed argument for the pro-life agenda, standing out among the plethora of God-wills-its. Beyond that, Kaye relies on his footage to discuss his subject.
None of the footage outweighs the sight of the actual procedure, which is shown twice as a set of bookends for the film. At first rather faceless, easy-going and clinical, the first procedure only becomes shocking when the doctor explains how he must put together the aftermath to make sure they got it all, holding the gelatinous beginnings of a head between his thumb and forefinger. By actualizing the event early, Kaye guides us into the argument with fresh eyes.
After all the doctor assassinations, the it's-my-body pamphleteering, and the hootin' and hollerin' subsides, we go to another clinic with a different woman who explains a lifetime of wrong turns, bad luck, and worse men that has led her to yet another abortion. In the middle of answering Kaye, the woman breaks into tears; an act that seems to have been building since we first met her. Kaye's strongest asset becomes this lone woman, separated from the arguments and chitter-chatter of what God wants and what the world demands. The focus goes from the physical aftermath of the procedure to the neglected emotional damage of not only the operation but the entire set of decisions that led up to it.
Though it doesn't necessarily break new ground apart from its exceptionally horrifying footage, it's hard to imagine a more honest and clear-headed documentary that's been made or will be made on the subject of abortion. Kaye doesn't attempt to explain these irreconcilable parties but instead attempts to view them as they exist, unafraid of the faults in their arguments and steadfast in their righteousness. Seeing his obsession play out so steadily on screen, Kaye should breathe a deep sigh of relief and move onto his next controversy.
Let's play a game of chess.