NEW YORK—Back when telegrams were the emails of their day, playwright Moss Hart may have been the first to observe, “If you’ve got a message, call Western Union.”
Whether Hollywood mogul Samuel Goldwyn ever echoed that sentiment, the advice continues to hold true for screenwriters today. Stories designed to win an argument rarely make for effective entertainment.
A case in point: the historical dramatization “Roe v. Wade” (Quiver). Good intentions can only partially sustain this re-creation of events surrounding the landmark 1973 Supreme Court case that legalized abortion across the United States. So even those movie fans most committed to the cause of life will be unable to overlook its aesthetic shortcomings.
Primary among these are the film’s overly rhetorical tone and the fact that its script, penned by co-directors Cathy Allyn and Nick Loeb in collaboration with Ken Kushner, comes stuffed full of citations whose appearance in the dialogue registers as anything but natural. In fact, it sometimes feels as though the cast had been turned into walking editions of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.
While the picture reveals a few interesting historical sidelights, moreover, Allyn and Loeb fail to bring together the varied ingredients of their story. As a result, viewers may discern the unfulfilled potential of at least three films hovering under the surface here.
The first would be a straightforward recounting of the titular legal proceeding, a still-controversial chapter of history nominally pitting Norma McCorvey (Summer Joy Campbell), a fragile young woman in her early 20s shielded under the legal pseudonym Jane Roe, against Henry Wade (James DuMont), the district attorney of Dallas County, Texas. Numerous questions about the case linger.
Was McCorvey — who later went on to become a prominent figure in pro-life circles — manipulated by her lawyers, Sarah Weddington (Greer Grammar) and Linda Coffee (Justine Wachsberger)?
Were Supreme Court justices unduly swayed by familial pressure such as that which here is depicted as being brought against Chief Justice Warren E. Burger (Jon Voight)? Did the involvement of other justices’ family members in the work of Planned Parenthood play a role behind the scenes?
A second movie could be devoted to the conversion story of Dr. Bernard Nathanson (Loeb), from whose perspective the narrative of “Roe v. Wade” is told. Together with activist Larry Lader (Jamie Kennedy), Nathanson became a leader in the political movement to make abortion legal. He also was an indefatigable and prolific abortionist.
The experience of witnessing his own work via the newly developed technology of ultrasound, however, led to a radical transition in Nathanson’s thinking. He became a high-profile opponent of abortion and narrated the 1984 movie “The Silent Scream.”
Still a third picture could focus on the biography of Dr. Mildred Jefferson (Stacey Dash), a long-standing champion of the unborn. Among other achievements, Jefferson was the first Black woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School. A co-founder of the National Right to Life Committee, she served as its president in the 1970s.
As it is, none of these elements jells with the others. Consequently, Allyn and Loeb’s treatment of one of the most controverted political topics in recent history emerges as more ambitious and earnest than successful.
The film contains mature themes, disturbing images, medical gore and a couple of mild oaths. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
By John Mulderig