SDG Reviews ‘Unplanned’: The Abby Johnson Story
Pure Flix’s adaptation of the Planned Parenthood clinic director-turned-pro-life activist makes for a rousing conversion story for the pro-life faithful that’s not entirely without a challenge to the movement.
Based on the memoir by Planned Parenthood clinic director-turned-pro-life activist Abby Johnson, Unplanned opens on the crucial Saturday in September 2009 when, per Johnson’s conversion story, Abby (Ashley Bratcher, War Room) is asked to assist with an ultrasound-guided abortion and witnesses the image of a 13-week-old unborn child squirming in an apparent effort to avoid the vacuum cannula that proceeds to dismember its body piece by piece.
The extended flashback that follows over the next hour or so includes a number of other disturbing abortion incidents from Abby’s life and career, including two of her own. One of hers goes badly wrong, as does one at the Bryan, Texas, facility where she works. Unplanned isn’t the most disturbing treatment of abortion I’ve seen in film, but it’s queasy enough, which is the intent.
The most horrific abortion-themed film I’ve ever seen would be Cristian Mungiu’s 2007 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which is about an illegal abortion in 1980s Romania.
Mungiu’s film took no position for or against abortion, but viewers on both sides of the abortion debate found in it at least some support for their own views — a token, I think, of the film’s trueness to life.
Abortion advocates saw in the nightmare circumstances entangling two young women a scathing indictment of the Romanian anti-abortion laws, making desperate women vulnerable to predatory black-market abortion providers.
For pro-lifers, the human dignity of unborn life was attested in the film’s attention to the fate of the fetus, from the unflinching shot of the tiny face and ruined body lying on a tile floor amid bloody towels to the mother’s urgent need to see her baby buried rather than disposed as waste, and the guilt and grief when this doesn’t happen.
Although the abortions in Unplanned are legal, an illicit back-alley aura hangs over a horrible scene in which a sedated young woman (Bella Altamura) in the recovery room begins bleeding out from a perforated uterus, leading to a panicky, prolonged effort to stabilize her without the PR hit of summoning an ambulance. Compounding the queasiness, Abby is forced to tell reassuring lies to the worried father in the waiting room.
Another scene includes a close-up on translucent fetal remains that Abby examines with detached fascination in the the POC room, where dismembered body parts are reassembled to ensure that nothing has been left in the uterus. POC stands for “products of conception,” though one of the other employees morbidly jokes that it really stands for “pieces of children.”
Johnson’s story is dramatic and powerful. The writing-directing team of Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon (whose previous collaborations include the screenplays for Pure Flix’s God’s Not Dead movies) capture at least some of that drama and power, with one crucial caveat.
From the very beginning, Unplanned is crafted specifically for Pure Flix’s target audience, an audience that is already pro-life. This is a regular issue with faith-based films, including the recent abortion-themed Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer — though Gosnell took a somewhat broader approach by emphasizing the consequences of treating abortion as politically untouchable and even unregulatable.
Before the first image appears onscreen, Abby addresses the audience in a voice-over running through the whole film: “My story isn’t an easy one to hear. I think I probably ought to warn you about that.”
As Abby arrives at the facility, the voice-over continues, “I’ve been asked a thousand times: Were you so gullible? So ambivalent, so naive, so foolish … ? My answer? Yes. I often find people don’t like my answers. That’s understandable. Because my story isn’t a neat and tidy one.”
That tone establishes Unplanned as a kind of cinematic personal testimony, told from Johnson’s post-conversion point of view, rather than the journey of a character whose shifting point of view we follow as she becomes increasingly committed to her Planned Parenthood career before starting to become more conflicted.
That story, told without voice-over and without the promise of Abby’s tears of repentance in the opening scene, might be a more effective drama for viewers of any point of view, but perhaps it would have been felt to be too alienating for the Pure Flix audience.
By starting at the end of Abby’s career and then flashing back with voice-over providing Abby’s post-conversion perspective, the film anchors the story in the destination.
To its credit, Unplanned isn’t entirely without challenge to pro-life viewers.
When Abby first shows up at Planned Parenthood to act as an escort accompanying clients from their cars to the door, the small knot of protesters outside the gate includes a black-robed Grim Reaper waving a scythe.
Another escort instructs Abby to engage clients as soon as they arrive on any topic — the weather, her clothes — anything “to distract her from the voices through the fence. They’re going to be harassing her. You need to make sure yours is the voice she hears.”
These aren’t idle words. When the first client arrives, a heavyset, middle-aged man with a gray goatee and sunglasses spits despicable taunts through the fence at her and the escorts coming to assist her.
Later, when a chipper young woman named Marilisa (Emma Elle Roberts) from the Coalition for Life tries to engage Abby, Abby incredulously accosts her: “In what world would a woman run to someone dressed as the Grim Reaper for help with her crisis pregnancy?”
Such tactics don’t help, Marilisa agrees candidly, adding that those people weren’t with the Coalition for Life.
Much later, the story breaks of the assassination of Dr. George Tiller, who gained notoriety for specializing in late-term abortions.
Tiller’s murder deeply affects Abby, who notes that he had a family, and she is especially appalled that he was killed in church. We see, too, that this leads to concern for Abby’s own safety, as well as that of her family and staff.
The film doesn’t include the death threats and other harassment that Abby herself received from anti-abortion activists. Still, I appreciate Unplanned going as far as it does in acknowledging that, as appalling as abortion is, anti-abortion zeal can take grotesque and even occasionally violent forms.
Imagine a version of this story that dared to open with the start of Abby’s first day — in which, rather than Abby’s opening statement, the first thing we heard was the taunts of the goateed man and the first image was the Grim Reaper with his scythe. An opening like that would signal trust in the audience and in the power of the story to convey the message without handholding.
But that’s not the kind of movie Pure Flix appears to be interested in making. Judged for what it is, a rousing personal testimony of conversion addressed to the pro-life faithful, Unplanned delivers.
Camerawork and editing are solid, with attention to camera movements carried across shots and scene transitions to facilitate a sense of narrative flow. I’ve seen the film twice, once on the big screen (in a nearly finished cut) and once via screening link, and it’s among the better constructed faith-based films I’ve seen.
As with Gosnell, the film’s most notable display of technique is connected to its central concern. When Abby wakes up on a table after her first abortion, the camera pushes into a tight close-up and comes into focus to convey her disorientation — and it’s turned sideways so that her face in profile appears upright in a sideways room.
Then, as she tries to sit up, there’s a graphic match cut to the recovery room, where she really is upright in a chair, her head slumping forward to follow the movement from the previous shot. It’s good filmmaking (and it plays even better without the soundtrack, told visually without voice-over explanation).
There are other small virtues. Most of the Planned Parenthood staff seem likable and decent, aside from the occasional cheerful callousness of acerbic Renee (Tina Toner).
The weight of villainy falls solidly on Abby’s boss and mentor, Cheryl (Robia Scott). When Abby, to Cheryl’s open disapproval, decides that with her third pregnancy she’s finally ready for a child, Cheryl sneers that at least the sight of Abby’s baby bump will encourage clients to abort.
Cheryl mentors Abby like a predator grooming a victim, but without the subtlety. When Abby steps out of line and Cheryl turns on her, she becomes even more cartoonishly villainous.
Marilisa and her husband, Shawn Carney (Jared Lotz), who run the Coalition for Life, are entirely angelic. (Carney is now the head of 40 Days for Life.)
Abby’s easygoing husband, Doug (Brooks Ryan), and her pro-life parents (Robert Thomason and Robin DeMarco) are also saintly, and they love Abby unconditionally through all her years at Planned Parenthood. The lack of family conflict is really extraordinary. Oh, and little Andee Grace Burton is Hallmark-movie cherubic as Abby and Doug’s daughter Grace.
“My story isn’t a neat and tidy one,” Abby tells us at the start, but this telling is still pretty neat and tidy. Perhaps the real story was messier. Questions have been raised about the accuracy of some details of Johnson’s account of her departure from Planned Parenthood. Some details of the film may be couched to address such questions. At any rate, the film is at least somewhat fictionalized and can be watched for what it is.
One thing missing from Unplanned is a concrete depiction of the Coalition for Life’s expressed interest in offering help to pregnant women in crisis. Marilisa and later Abby herself offer caring and reassuring words to distraught women in the Planned Parenthood parking lot, but we never see, for instance, deliveries of diapers or baby clothes or other practical forms of help.
Abortion is appalling, violent and inhuman, and no one should be involved in it. But the answer to appalling violence is love and support, not more violence or appalling behavior. That’s the message of Unplanned. The more people take that message to heart, the better off the world will be.
Deacon Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.
Caveat Spectator: Disturbing ultrasound images of an unborn child being dismembered; much medical gore and brief images of fetal parts; some cursing; a couple of sexual references. Mature viewing.
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- steven d. greydanus