Lake of Fire

Reviewed by Tim Grierson

A powerful mixture of ethical, philosophical, political, and religious viewpoints square off in Lake of Fire, American History X controversial director Tony Kayes documentary about the state of the abortion debate in America.

Aspiring for a definitive take on one of the most contentious issue of our time, the film, which Kaye has been working on since 1990, is impressively thoughtful and evenhanded in its presentation, and often intellectually captivating and emotionally harrowing. That it ultimately falls short of its goals should not diminish the mostly successful results.

Spanning the early 1990s, when Bill Clintons presidency sought to protect abortion rights, through this century, when George W. Bushs ascension to the White House symbolized a rightward turn in the nation, Lake of Fire centers on the differing groups involved in the abortion debate, allowing individuals to speak directly to the camera without any editorializing from the filmmaker. Kaye also offers background on the history of abortion rights in the U.S., and shows footage from abortion clinics, including parts of the procedure and the remnants of the aborted fetuses.

Tony Kaye is best known to audiences for American History X, his 1998 feature about a violent neo-Nazi played by Edward Norton. Although the film received some good notices and garnered an Oscar nomination for Norton, it is arguably best remembered for its public feud between Kaye and New Line over the final edit. Kayes attempts to have his name removed from the film failed, inspiring a series of increasingly eccentric full-page trade ads taken out by the director against his own movie.

Considering Kayes reputation as a provocateur, it would be reasonable to expect that his abortion documentary would be comparably controversial. But as the reviews from last years Toronto Film Festival, where the film debuted, have demonstrated, Lake of Fire is a restrained look at the incendiary topic, refraining from cheap manipulative gimmicks to incite the audience one way or the other. Though Kayes crisp black-and-white photography is startling in its beauty, it never detracts from the sincerity of his talking heads words or from the filmmakers rigorous refusal to demonize or objectify any of these voices.

Lake of Fire calmly takes apart the issue, mixing well-reasoned analytical insights from, say, philosopher Noam Chomsky with more impassioned perspectives from speakers such as religious activist Randall Terry. In some ways, the divide over abortion rights is already well known speaking very generally, the better-educated and less religious tend to be pro-choice while the more religious and less-educated consider themselves pro-life so Lake of Fire is at its best when it offers historical and intellectual perspectives that elevate the debate beyond the stereotypical blue-states-versus-red-states argument. Chomsky and attorney Alan Dershowitz are particularly helpful in this regard in that their comments are thought-provoking without emanating from an obvious political bias.

Because Kaye has worked on the film for a considerable amount of time, Lake of Fire benefits from a considered tone that seems to encompass the breadth of the debate. It also must be noted that because Kaye moved to the States from his home in Britain around the time he began filming Lake of Fire, the documentary possesses a perceptible outsiders perspective on America as seen through the prism of the abortion issue. Kaye doesnt glamorize or comment on the extremes of American life, although his commitment to being dispassionate does hinder his ability to make the more outlandish individuals on both sides of the political perspective relatable.

His brief inclusion of a radically feminist punk band adds nothing to the discussion and is mostly harmless, but the bigger problem occurs with his more in-depth investigation of religious fundamentalists, who come across as such backwoods simpletons that their observations can barely be taken seriously. Because they occupy more of the films screen time, and because their rising political capital has been one of the most significant recent power shifts in the nation, it feels like a truly wasted opportunity that Kaye fails to get below the surface of their motivations. While Lake of Fire doesnt treat them as hostilely as the recent documentary Jesus Camp did, Kayes calm dissection of the issue loses steam when he invests too much time with speakers whose vehement distrust of the evangelical movement risks overselling their threat to certain aspects of the nations democracy, especially considering that some mentally imbalanced religious fanatics have resorted to murder to further their argument.

While Kaye tries not to take a position in his film, the combining of several outlandish evangelical figures with angry anti-religious writers at least suggests hes less sympathetic to their cause. Consequently, the film doesnt offer as broad a perspective on religious attitudes toward abortion as would be liked. While he does include a Catholic woman involved with a pro-choice religious group, there isnt enough room made for religious Americans who feel conflicted about the debate. In a sense, the film fails to move beyond the aforementioned divide between the religious and nonreligious on abortion perspectives.

Still, at two-and-a-half hours, Lake of Fire is an impressive step toward trying to chronicle a highly volatile national issue in human terms. Two individual stories contained in the docu personify the difficult gray areas in the debate, and Kaye is exceptional at allowing the womens narratives to stand unadorned so that their power could come through clearly.

Without wishing to divulge much, let it be said that Norma McCorvey (the Roe of Roe v. Wade) and a Minnesota woman identified as Stacey provide the film with intimate, empathetic tales that cut through the political posturing that too often dominates the debate. Impressive but flawed, Lake of Fire may not be quite definitive, but its a startling work in many ways nonetheless.


Running time: 152 minutes

Director: Tony Kaye
Production company: Above the Sea
US Distribution: ThinkFilm
Producer: Tony Kaye
Executive Producers: Steve Golin, David Kanter, Yan Lin Kaye
Writer: Tony Kaye
Editor: Peter Goddard
Cinematography: Tony Kaye
Music: Anne Dudley