The wide release of independent film “Roe v. Wade” on Friday marks the culmination of a tumultuous production, including temporary shutdowns and constant condemnation, that sent liberal Hollywood and conservative pro-lifers alike into a tizzy. After all that, is it worth seeing? No, not really. But is it worth discussing? Incredibly.
It’s as if the film believes its camera is a fly on the wall, when really it’s a rose-colored lens on the arguments of the pro-life camp.
There are few topics we debate more fiercely than abortion, and even fewer works of art that approach this debate seriously. I believe co-director Nick Loeb was sincere when he said he wanted to "let the audience decide." By trying to portray both camps in the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, it defies the propaganda label so many of its critics level at it.
Propaganda, after all, is heavy-handed manipulation of facts and emotions to brainwash an audience into adopting the creators’ viewpoint. “Roe v. Wade” is an attempt to reflect the historical events as they unfolded. But Loeb’s bias still shines through — and if that’s not unforgivable, it certainly undermines his work’s value. It’s as if the film believes its camera is a fly on the wall, when really it’s a rose-colored lens on the arguments of the pro-life camp.
And that means the movie is too polemical to be effective, too unsubtle. Its tone, derisive and smug, is all wrong for what Loeb described as his goal of pro-choicers coming around. It preaches to the choir, a pitfall both pro-life and pro-choice advocates must avoid to be successful. To really move people, we must create art. And for that, there must be an element of personal interpretation, as we find greater worth in discovering evidence and symbolism for ourselves.
Loeb makes the jump from small acting roles (“Den of Thieves” and “Swing State”) and tabloid headlines (Sofia Vergara’s former fiancé) to co-director and star. He and co-producer, -writer and -director Cathy Allyn contend that with their painstaking research, the work is "a true story” and not "faith-based." They even cite the books and films they draw from, which makes for an awkward ending sequence as source citations flash across the screen. But “Roe v. Wade” slams its themes in the viewer’s face every bit like a Christian film would — a label Loeb and Allyn, hoping to attract a wider audience and inspire critical thought, wisely wanted to avoid.
When we see the strategy of the pro-choice camp behind Roe’s lawyers — the strategists include National Abortion Rights Action League founder Lawrence Lader (Jamie Kennedy) and “The Feminine Mystique” author Betty Friedan (Lucy Davenport) — the movie often comments on their moves with a lampooning that borders on contempt. We hear it in their cavalier attitude toward the fetuses; we see it in their body language.
Meanwhile, inspirational-quote machine Robert Byrn (Joey Lawrence), the Fordham law professor who was one of the pro-life side's strategists, is reduced to a meme collection. The film essentially canonizes him, holding him up reverentially as what every pro-life advocate should be like. But to an unbiased viewer, he’s ridiculous.
What films like this need to do instead is construct steel-man arguments for both sides. Make the opponent's argument a fortress. Let us see the handiwork of both sides and judge accordingly. Why undermine the other side if you have confidence in your own? Hence, where “Roe v. Wade” does shine, it's in the courtroom, where the Supreme Court justices and lawyers volley the most thought-provoking dialogue of the two-hour work.
Throughout, much of the larger problem stems from Loeb's narration. He plays Bernard Nathanson, a prolific abortion doctor whose slow conversion to the pro-life stance provides the main storyline. Fighting for the support of women, he recruits a female ace, Friedan, while the National Right to Life Committee recruits the first Black, female Harvard Medical School graduate, Mildred Jefferson (Stacey Dash) — which casts doubt on whether feminism pulled these strings or, rather, the patriarchy.
Nathanson's narration works by showcasing an insider revealing secrets, but it leaves little room for us to wrestle with things for ourselves. He indicts his colleagues for focusing solely on financial gain — "There's a fortune in abortion," he literally sings at one point. And he jokes about fabricating abortion statistics that are later parroted by a newscast. (Both claims are based on the books he wrote after his pro-life conversion.) While the latter moment got the biggest laughs of the night from the audience attending its premiere at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Florida, a less-partisan crowd would respond better to a more matter-of-fact retelling.
Despite what some reviewers claim, though, the film doesn’t completely vilify the Roe side. “I became a doctor so that no woman ever had to go through that again,” Nathanson says, referring to an illegal abortion that killed or severely hurt (it’s never clear) a partner of his. Friedan consistently has women's interests in mind and often considers Nathanson and Lader with skepticism.
If anything, the film hangs out both sides' dirty laundry with equal relish. In a rare convincing scene, Henry Wade — the Dallas district attorney whose assistants argue in favor of the state’s restrictions on abortion — is livid after losing the first faceoff in court. The pro-life organizers don't muster the same efficiency as their opponents outside of court, either.
This isn’t to say that all of the criticisms of the movie are on target. Some may consider three quick shots of aborted fetuses propagandistic for their shock value. I would remind them: If you believe your side is right, why hide anything? And many point out that pro-life master orator Byrn misquotes Benjamin Franklin and Abraham Lincoln. But they are missing the forest for the trees, and their criticism smacks of a discrediting campaign.
The real issue lies so much deeper. Here’s a character who cannot interact believably with other adults, one who barrages them with nonsequiturs solely meant to obtain approval from pro-lifers munching on popcorn. He’s shown scoring rhetorical points against his pro-choice students, whose ripostes lack the sophistication a film like this needs in its opponents. What a missed opportunity in his law seminars for thought-provoking debate.
Similarly, Nathanson contends that liberals control the media. I read his point to be that pro-choicers vastly outmaneuver pro-lifers in using the media to their advantage, which is hardly propagandistic and probably hardly arguable. But once again, the tactic is wrong. Is there any more hackneyed conservative claim? Pro-choicers tune this out, and critics pounce — rightfully so.
Let us see the handiwork of both sides and judge accordingly. Why undermine the other side if you have confidence in your own?
We ought to respect our opponents enough to know that both sides approach abortion with intelligence, with compassion if not empathy and with the greater good in mind. We need films that reaffirm this, not ones that go for head nods from partisans. “Juno,” for instance,which follows a young woman’s unexpected pregnancy through to her ultimate decision to give her child up for adoption. That narrative has soul, joy and subtlety, and it does more for Loeb and Allyn's objectives than a cascade of films like “Roe v. Wade.” All she does is have the baby. We discuss the rest.
The pro-life side often remarks that each of us is fearfully and wonderfully made. When we can say the same about a pro-life director's film, it will have power neither polemic nor propaganda piece can match.