Note: The writer of this review watched Roe V. Wade on a digital screener from home. Before making the decision to see it—or any other film—in a movie theater, please consider the health risks involved. Here’s an interview on the matter with scientific experts.
Two long years ago, the regrettable Pure Flix production Unplanned gave the movie treatment to the story of Abby Johnson, a Planned Parenthood employee who saw the pro-life light and joined the cause to protest the abortions she once helped facilitate. This website’s F review catalogued the untruths, cinematic manipulation tactics, and undiluted hysteria of a film that reaches a triumphant conclusion when Mike “The MyPillow Guy” Lindell shows up to deliver a snappy one-liner and bulldoze a clinic.
Though the new Roe V. Wade had been shooting (and generating controversies aplenty) back when Unplanned was nary a glint in its producers’ eyes, the long-delayed directorial debut from Nick Loeb and Cathy Allyn has only now come to theaters as an independent release. It uses the account of another convert, abortion doctor turned fetal-rights crusader Bernard Nathanson, to cast aspersions on the legitimacy of a much-debated medical procedure. And like its cousin slightly farther to the right, it does so by serving up a buffet of lies, de-contextualized framings, and rickety emotional appeals. But Loeb and Allyn lack a certain wingnut pizzazz that makes the Pure Flix highlights such fascinating specimens of conservative kitsch. They have contrived a film no less toxic or disingenuous in its politics, with the added cardinal sin of being heinously plain. Consider the Lindell of it all: This time, he only gets a split-second cameo as a regular old news anchor on a background TV.
In the interviews he’s largely sat down for without Allyn, apparent brains-of-the-outfit Loeb (who you may remember from his failed court case against his former partner Sofia Vergara to claim custody of embryos they’d frozen while together, or perhaps his fried condiment company) has been deliberate about distancing himself from the more extreme side of the anti-abortion crowd. He’s not here to deliver a polemic, just to present the facts—his facts—and let everyone draw their own conclusions. The indirect golden light, relatively committed set-dressing, and rousing monologues delivered in submission to some parallel dimension’s nega-Oscars all confer the impression of a faux-prestige period piece relating the bullet points of history. Loeb even tries to offset his clear ideological slant with lip service to the other side, as in a passionate speech from Betty Friedan (Lucy Davenport) about her basic rights as a woman. These scattered overtures to fairness end up working a little too well, sounding far more grounded and reasonable than anything coming from the side of the aisle the film wants us on.
Loeb stars as the one-time “Abortion King” Nathanson, a man so dedicated to the availability of safe pregnancy terminations that he co-founded the National Association For The Repeal Of Abortion Laws. Or so he’d have the good people of the United States believe! In actuality, he and crony Lawrence Lader (Jamie Kennedy) were the masterminds behind Big Abortion, chortling as they perpetuated an elaborate scam to murder scores of babies while lining their own pockets with one kickback after the other. The coalition of moral warriors led by one Mildred Jefferson (Stacey Dash) would take their fight to the courts, but no matter: A hilariously improbable fix was in, from the Texas state judge giving a big wink to let NARAL’s legal team know she’s on their side, to the Supreme Court justices bullied into voting for the right to choose by their feminist wives or daughters (one played by Tomi Lahren).
It’s easy enough to poke the usual holes in the blinkered non-logic articulated through Nathanson’s journey. The grisly details of how abortion works are meant to scandalize us, even though every surgical operation sounds like a Saw challenge when described step by step. (The much-buzzed-about gore may have been minimized in edits; the “buckets of baby body parts” are there, but we get scarcely a glimpse.) Margaret Sanger’s racism is supposed to discredit abortion, despite the fact that today’s Planned Parenthood has had no problem divorcing its mission from the name of its founder. Loeb’s big reveal that the medical industry runs on an elaborate system of corruption and payoffs isn’t all that far from the truth, but it’s hardly cause to dismiss the validity of medicine itself. His would-be ace in the hole, that the “Jane Roe” at the center of the landmark court case later switched teams, falls apart with a cursory Google bringing up her deathbed confession that she was bribed to go pro-life. Loeb adopts the Trumpian tactic of lobbing so many refutable points in a row that an opposition doesn’t know where to start, though the tellingly defensive “Fact Check” section of the film’s official website offers an unwitting guide.
“I made them up!” Nathanson crows of the abortion statistics that made the topic into a national issue, in a movie-long voiceover that may smack of Goodfellas but actually nods to the propaganda picture The Silent Scream he would narrate in the Reagan years. For its many faults, Loeb’s work is astute about the efficacy of a well-placed fib. The more colorful flourishes, allowed under the auspices of creative license, allow for some memorable moments: There may be no evidence to suggest that the G-men busting up the hotel-room clinic of a Dr. Ketchum really punched him in the face mid-operation, but at least the scene has a trace of panache. Loeb mostly tamped down the lunacy endemic to an obscure corner of choir-preaching moviedom, and for what? No critical mind runs the risk of mistaking this partisan broadside for innocent edutainment. An end-credits boilerplate disclaimer (“The persons and events in this motion picture are fictitious. Any similarity to actual persons or events is unintentional”) lands like a self-own TKO.