Unplanned: Can Its Truth Reach Those Who Need It?

I hear that Unplanned, the movie that recounts Abby Johnson‘s conversion from Planned Parenthood clinic director of the year to pro-life activist, is under a media blackout, but you’d never know it from my newsfeed.  I’d been hearing about it from all my Catholic pro-life friends for weeks before it premiered, and I had no interest in seeing it.

But my next door neighbor and dear friend talked me into going with her and I’m glad I did.  I can’t really say I enjoyed it because of the subject matter, but the movie held my attention.  I was impressed and I wasn’t really expecting to be.

The irony that it’s legal for a 17-year-old to have an abortion without a parent’s consent but not to watch one simulated on screen is not lost on me, but even so I wouldn’t take my own teenagers to this movie.  I believe the R rating is justified and I had to avert my eyes more than once.

That’s not to suggest that Unplanned‘s gore is gratuitous.  As Abby herself says to her husband when she arrives home in blood-spattered sneakers, “Nobody ever said that abortion is pretty.”  The scenes were appropriate and effective within the context of the story, although the aftermath of Abby’s at-home chemical abortion probably could have been cut shorter.

Reading the above, you might assume that Unplanned is just a moving-picture version of those awful graphic photos with which over-the-top activists like to assault unsuspecting bystanders.  On the contrary, the film is surprisingly nuanced.  Even as an unapologetic pro-choice clinic director, Abby is a sympathetic character, and so are the other women who work with her (the obvious exception is her villainous, money-grubbing boss: “Non-profit is a tax status, not a business model.”).  They truly believe the work they do helps women, and Abby sees the real mission of her clinic as providing healthcare and resources to prevent unplanned pregnancies and, by extension, abortions.

I was shocked and then thrilled to see some pro-life protesters who were decidedly unsympathetic, screaming at women, calling them murderers, waving aborted baby pictures at them.  It was honest of the movie to confront this abusive behavior head on, and to use the prayerful, kind protesters to rebut it and to demonstrate throughout the movie the importance of dialogue and respect and finding common ground.

While Unplanned left me with a mostly positive impression, I do have two criticisms.  And while that may not seem like much, I fear that they are quite damaging to the film’s potential to change the minds and hearts of abortion rights supporters.

At the very beginning of the movie, we get a disclaimer: Based on a true story.  I know lots of movies begin that way.  I know translating events from a book to film requires a certain amount of dramatic licenses.  Still, this immediately called every event into question for me.  I had to wonder what exactly was changed? What exactly was not strictly true? And while there is Truth to be found even in completely fictional stories, if I were a skeptical pro-choice Planned Parenthood fan watching this movie, I would take the disclaimer as license to question–even discount–everything I saw.

Even worse was the confrontation between Abby and her former boss, Cheryl, just after Abby makes her debut into the world of sidewalk counseling outside the fence of the very clinic she once ran.  As a way of intimidating Abby with the power and influence of Planned Parenthood, Cheryl brags, “We’ve got Soros, Gates, Buffet . . . ”

Maybe Cheryl really said those exact words in real life, although it didn’t sound to me like anything a real person would say, but I was immediately pulled right out of the movie, cringing inwardly as I imagined how a pro-choice viewer would react to the name-dropping of George Soros in particular.  Don’t comment and tell me how much money Soros donates to Planned Parenthood.  I am sure he does and you don’t have to convince me, but he’s also constantly accused of being involved in various “liberal conspiracies” by far right wing types, and including this here will make some viewers dismiss the entirety of the movie.

Which leads me to the big question I was left with after watching Unplanned:  Who is the movie for?  I can see it as a vehicle for energizing those who are already against abortion, or perhaps as a recruitment tool for 40 Days for Life.  I can see it providing topics for discussion among pro-lifers.  But even if we can get pro-choice people into the theatre to watch, because of the foregoing I am not sure I can see it changing their minds about abortion or Planned Parenthood; and it’s a shame that reservations about the truth of events in a movie might obscure the Truth about abortion.

Cuttin' Footloose

When I was a teenager, the poster below (or one very like it) hung on the back of my bedroom door.
footloose kevin bacon
It wasn’t because I had a huge crush on Kevin Bacon, although I did think he was cute.   What I loved was the movie–Footloose.
As I checked my phone before bed last night, I learned that Kevin Bacon, who remains incredibly cool 30 years later and has aged better than most of us, appeared on the Tonight Show and was not too stuck up to engage in a little self-parodying here.
This was serendipitous because at the very moment he was doing this, I was watching Footloose with my big kids (well, two of them) who HAD NEVER SEEN IT.   John picked it up for me the last time he was at the video store, knowing how much I love it, and I’d been waiting for a good opportunity to share it with them.  This weekend, with John and the little people off on a quick visit to Baltimore, was the perfect time.
I was a little worried that they wouldn’t like it, that it wouldn’t stand the test of time or “translate” well across the 30 years that have passed since I saw first saw it.  I even wondered it I would still like it. (Yes, I did, for the record.  Just as much, with maybe even a little more depth as I now have a lot more understanding of Pastor Shaw’s point of view!)  Why should I care so much?  you ask.
I can’t even think of a way to describe the way I feel about this movie and the night I first saw it without resorting to the worst kind of cliches.  I was 17 in February 1984, just like Ren in the movie.  Like many teenagers then and now, my life was completely wrapped up in my group of friends.  I could not imagine a future in which I did not see or talk to them every day and I dreaded the thought of going away to college and leaving them.  We saw the movie at what was then the Cinema 6.  These days it’s an artsy place showing lots of foreign films, but back then it was our favorite theatre, perhaps because of its close proximity to the Downtown West location of Mr. Gatti’s (gone now), which for some reason was our high school’s acknowledged hangout even though the school itself was on the other side of town.
We were having a slumber party at one friend’s house and it was the birthday of another friend, and I don’t remember how we came to the decision to go to the movie, if it was spontaneous or part of the plan from the beginning.  But perhaps it’s worth noting that I remember anything about it at all.  I mean, I know some of the other movies I saw in high school, but no other evening at the movies maintains this much space in my memory, or evokes so much feeling.  I clearly remember watching the opening sequence–all those feet–and feeling excited about what was to come.  But what I remember even more is coming out of the theatre after the movie.
There were, if I remember right, six of us there that night, five girls and one boy.  I can remember coming out of the movie almost dancing–maybe actually dancing, there on the sidewalk to the south of the theatre.  I don’t remember what we talked about, other than how much we liked the movie.  Probably we were discussing what we were going next, which might have been back to the slumber party, or maybe to Gatti’s for pizza–that part I don’t remember.
What I do remember so clearly though is how I felt.  Maybe it wasn’t the movie itself.  Maybe it was just the joy of being young and with close friends, out alone at night under our own steam, having friends who were driving and a couple who even had their own cars.  But for me the way I felt that night is inextricably linked to the movie and always will be.   I felt . . . empowered.  Like I could do anything.  Like life was good and all of it was ahead of me (that part at least was true).

He who does not weep does not see

les mis poster
Y’all, I am OBSESSED with Les Miserables right now.   Searching Twitter and Tumblr tags, listening to every soundtrack I can find on Spotify pretty much nonstop, reading reviews and analyses online . . .  I cannot WAIT to see it again.  Let’s not call this a review, exactly–it’s more of a tribute (or a gush) because this movie is WONDERFUL.   It rose to the top of my favorite movie list like a rocket.
Here’s where I would normally tell you that if you aren’t interested in this movie and don’t plan to see it, you should move along.  But I won’t say that, because everyone should see this movie.  You just don’t know what you are missing.   Some are avoiding it because they think it is depressing.  No.  It’s sad.  Very, very sad. But SAD and DEPRESSING are different.  This movie–this story–is UPLIFTING.
I learned about catharsis in high school English, but I didn’t understand the point of it then.  Why seek out emotional experiences in fiction?  Aren’t our tears over the reality of life enough?  Now, though, I love me some catharsis and Les Miserables has been a source of it for me for many years.
I saw the musical on stage probably 20 years ago.  I purchased the soundtrack–on cassette–and when my big kids were little I was in the habit of listening to it regularly.  I remember clearly standing in my little yellow kitchen, chopping vegetables for supper, tears rolling down my face.  It was Fantine’s death scene that always got me then.  I only had to hear the opening line for the tears to start.
As for my kids, they grew to love the songs as well, especially “Master of the House” because of the bad words (okay to sing but not to say!).  I was so excited when almost 12 years ago the play came back to Knoxville.  I wanted the kids to see it, and we spent over 80 dollars we could ill afford then on the tickets.  My dream was squelched when I (nine months’ pregnant with #4) got put on bedrest for high blood pressure just days before the show.
John and the kids got to go, though, and in the years since we’ve kept the magic alive, frequently bursting into the initial sung conversation between Javert and Valjean. (Things like that happen around here a lot.)
I’ve never seen it since, and I was beyond excited for the movie, and especially to finally get to experience the story with the big kids. (They loved it too.)
You always wonder and worry a little about seeing an adaptation or a remake of a much-loved book or show or movie.  You know there are going to be changes.  And the newer version is going to stick in your head.  Will it spoil the old one?  If you haven’t seen this movie yet for those sorts of reasons, don’t let it hold you back.  Of necessity, a film is different from a play.  And there are some small changes.  But the changes add rather than detract.  Where additions are made they come from the book or reflect its spirit.  Here is the first of several blog posts I’ve been reading that explain this beautifully, along with quotations from the book.  Read them all.
Having experienced the story onstage and onscreen and through the music now over so many years, one thing that has interested me how my own reactions to the material have altered.  Part of that has to do with the differences in media but I also think it reflects where I am in my own my life.  As I said earlier I used to find Fantine’s death the most devastating part (it’s still sad!).  I think that was because I was empathasizing with her as we were both mothers of little children.  This time I was most moved by the death of the young men on the barricade.  Why?  Because I am now the mother of two almost grown up boys.  They reminded me of Jake and Teddy and their friends.
young rebels
 
One virtue of the movie format is that you get to know the minor characters so much better.  Even with the best seats in the house you can’t see individual faces at a play the way you can on a screen.  The young men on the barricade were humanized and individualized in the movie version.  The tragedy and waste of their deaths became personal.
Some reviews I read criticized what I saw as a strength:  the way the movie showed the characters in closeup while they were singing their big numbers, never leaving their faces for the duration of the song (which by the way were actually sung while filmed, not lip synched and added later).  Me, I thought it was amazing.  THEY were amazing.  No, they didn’t always belt out the tunes, Broadway fashion, because this was a different format, and not necessary in a film.  They ACTED the songs.  The feelings they showed were amazing.  They cried while singing.  Their voices broke with emotion.
Anne Hathaway should get an Oscar.  What everyone is talking about is The Song, and The Song is amazing, but to me her acting was just as moving in the small parts.  The way her lips trembled and her eyes filled when she knew she was about the lose her job.  The way she cried while her hair was being cut.
fantine hair cut
 
I’ve got nothing negative to say about the casting or the music, although plenty of people seem to.  I concede that Russell Crowe’s voice isn’t on the same level as the rest of the cast.  However, I liked his Javert very much and I think his softer singing shapes his depiction of the character.  His Javert was meditative, thoughtful, driven but not fanatical, trying to do what was right but getting it all wrong.  I understood this Javert.  I felt sorry for him.  I didn’t want him to die.
Hugh Jackman’s transformation from convict to Monsieur Madeleine was impressive.  We couldn’t figure out how they could possibly pretty him up!  I only knew of him before this movie.  If you’ve thought of him as an action hero he will surprise and delight you here.
I won’t go through all the characters because you can read about them anywhere.  But I will say that I am a critical person, trained to be that way as an English major, and I wouldn’t–couldn’t–criticize anyone’s performance in this movie.
I have more to say–especially about the music and the religious themes.  Because this is a profoundly Catholic movie–more than the play–and I loved it for that as well.  But I will leave that for another day and here end with a plea:  GO SEE THIS MOVIE.
P.S.  If you have a heart, you should approach Les Miserables prepared to weep.  Don’t see it with people you don’t want to cry in front of.   I had to stifle an actual sob at one point.  You’ll cry because it’s sad, and you’ll cry because it is beautiful.