Knots: “Roe v. Wade,” the Movie

In a 1989 TV movie, Roe vs. Wade, Holly Hunter played “Ellen Russell” and Amy Madigan was Sarah Weddington, the plaintiff’s attorney who argued the infamous 1973 abortion case before SCOTUS. “Ellen Russell” stood for Norma McCorvey, the real Jane Roe, who by then had become a pro-life champion (and a Catholic). Hunter and Madigan won Emmys.

This was years before Ms. McCorvey recanted her “conversion,” saying she’d been paid to be a pro-life spokesperson and had never really abandoned her pro-abortion views. Operation Rescue officials admitted Norma was paid well; her public comments scripted. She should have won an acting award.

I mention this because it’s interesting and because a new movie, Roe v. Wade (PG-13), is not. Greer Grammer, daughter of Kelsey, plays Sarah Weddington this time but won’t win an Oscar – not because her performance is bad, but because the movie is.

It’s hard to untangle this knotted mess but I’ll try.

Written, directed, and produced by Nick Loeb and Cathy Allyn, it’s a vanity project for Mr. Loeb, who’s also the star. That’s the first knot: he’s a lousy actor.

Second knot, related to the first: The central conceit of the film is to focus less on the landmark case and more on the life of Bernard Nathanson, a role Mr. Loeb unwisely gave to himself. Nathanson was the notorious abortion doctor (and NARAL co-founder), who – via ultrasound imagery – had an epiphany about the truth of life in the womb, and became an anti-abortion campaigner and Catholic convert. His conversions were genuine.

The film owes much of its background to Nathanson’s post-conversion writing, especially his book, Aborting America. But the film does not make clear that he was still performing abortions as late as 1978-79 or that his religious conversion came in 1996 when he was 70.

Third knot: casting. On a limited budget, you don’t have all of Hollywood available: most actors are liberal and unlikely to appear in a pro-life film. There is a shortlist of pro-life conservatives in Tinseltown.

But not so short as to explain some of Roe v. Wade’s casting decisions: Roger Stone, political consultant and convicted felon (pardoned by President Trump) as a reporter; the My Pillow guy, Mike Lindell also as a reporter; pro-life activist Alveda King as the mother of Dr. Mildred Jefferson; auto dealer Troy Duhon; all-around activist Milo Yiannopoulos . . . If I’ve missed any member of this Conservative Community Theater troupe, I apologize.

Third knot: the script. Stacey Dash (as Dr. Jefferson, the first black woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School) says to the priest (Fr. James T. McHugh, played by Tom Guiry) trying to cull her into the pro-life cause: “I won’t be used for the color of my skin. I do what I do on principle. Like Don Quixote.” I had to rewind the film to make sure I heard that non sequitur correctly.

The priest then quotes Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller’s famous “First they came for the Jews . . .” epigram against political cowardice. That scene transitions into another with Ms. Dash and Joey Lawrence (as Fordham University legal scholar, Robert Byrn) in which he quotes Ben Franklin’s aphorism about the futility of giving up liberty to gain security (incongruous in the context of the film), to which Ms. Dash replies with a citation from Susan B. Anthony, and you begin to think the screenplay was cadged from Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.

Some background about the state of thinking in the U.S. in the 60s and 70s makes sense, as does exposition about how pro-life leadership coalesced. But does that have to be established with such pedantry and incongruity? This is never more so than in the leaden narration that accompanies the drama, spoken by Mr. Loeb, and that’s the fourth knot.

In more “literary” films, narration can be effective. More often it’s deployed by filmmakers unable to propel a story subtly: to show not tell. Like good teachers, good writers and directors lead audiences to conclusions of their own. Not Loeb and Allyn, whose approach to storytelling is about as subtle as the cartoon anvil that was always dropping on the head of Wile E. Coyote.

It’s a film that might have been a documentary or even a docudrama with dramatic scenes interspersed with interviews of experts or actual witnesses to the events portrayed. Roe v. Wade blurs the distinctions. It wants to be dramatic, but Mr. Loeb and Ms. Allyn are simply not up to the task, which is why narration is used to compensate for their inability to otherwise craft a compelling story.

Knot five is the premise that ratification of abortion was solely the result of a conspiracy. Without question, there was subterfuge by pro-aborts, especially – as the film suggests – in statistics about the extent of “back-alley” abortion deaths, but is it right to suggest Nathanson and Larry Lader, “father” of the “pro-choice” movement (played by Jamie Kennedy), were master manipulators who led the media and the legal establishment where they would not otherwise have gone?

There is a scene in which Henry Wade (James DuMont) scolds Jay Floyd (Andrew Vogel), who represented Texas in the case, for not emphasizing the embryological science. There was a brief in the original case heard in Dallas that did so superbly. It was in the material before SCOTUS, and I have it on good authority that at least one justice may not even have read it.

The best the two dissenters could do in the 7-2 decision was argue that the matter belonged in the States. Pro-life advocates were stunned by the outcome, which was unsuspected given that the Court had not long before sustained state restrictions and because opinion polls showed wide opposition to abortion.

So much better would have been a film just about Nathanson’s transformation, which might have begun with his elation at the Roe decision, then chronicled his transformation, and concluded with the production of his documentary, The Silent Scream and his death at peace with Christ.

Suggestion: Watch Gosnell or Unplanned instead.

Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.